Friday, August 13, 2010

The Chilling Truth Exposed in In Cold Blood: Oppression of Gay Men in Middle America in the 1960s

Since the 1965 publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, mainstream critics have seemingly gone out of their way to ignore the author’s intricate weaving of homoerotic tension into the lives and relationships of the two main characters, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Besides a virtual void of critical responses to the complicated sexual dynamics that exist between Perry and Dick, this unwillingness to entertain the duo’s queerness has resulted in a widespread misunderstanding of the brutal killing of the Clutter family, as it is depicted in Capote’s novelistic depiction of the historical event. Even contemporary critics assert (see, for example, reviews on the blogs Serendipity and Kidnapping, Murder and Mayhem), as Conrad Knickerbocker does in a 1966 review published in The York Times, that Perry and Dick kill the Clutters “without motive” (par. 6). I would argue, however, that instead of lacking in motive, the murders are clearly driven by a subconscious rage at the oppression of gay men in mid-twentieth-century mid-America, as well as the shame and self-loathing caused by their marginalization.

Significantly, it is Perry, the most obviously gay character of the criminal pair (despite Dick’s repeated use of endearments such as “honey” and “sugar” in conversation with Perry), who ultimately shoots the Clutters. In fact, as literary scholar Kathryn Bond Stockton points out, “the killing of the Clutters, in Capote’s hands, is the result of Perry’s missing the chance for a homosexual connection with a friend” (311). Indeed, Perry openly admits that he would never have agreed to accompany Dick to the Clutter home if “things had work[ed] out with Willie-Jay,” his “real and only friend,” who mentored and cared for Perry during a previous stint in prison (45). I would add to Stockton’s assessment of Perry’s motives that once inside the Clutter household, Perry is further incited to murder by Dick’s (perhaps overcompensatory) assertion of heteronormativity, his pronouncement of a desire to rape the teenage Nancy Clutter before killing her. Although Perry stops Dick from committing the rape, this incident spurs Perry to action, as he quickly executes the Clutters, people who, until this point, Perry had stringently argued with Dick for saving. As Tim asserts on the blog Random Observations
, then, it seems that Perry is motivated in part by jealousy (par. 8). Also factoring into Perry’s motives are his anger at his parents for abandoning him as a child and his embarrassed rage at the nuns at the orphanage who ridiculed his problem with bed wetting and abused him sexually (275). Years after the murders, Perry surmises that he might have used the Clutters as scapegoats for the wrongs committed against him throughout his life: “They [the Clutters] never hurt me. Like other people. Like people have all my life. Maybe it’s just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it” (302). Far from motiveless, then, Perry’s killing spree is thus directly linked to his anger toward the circumstances that led to his life of crime, the cultural factors that works to prevent his reunion with Willie-Jay, and his perceived need to assert control over—or perhaps prove his masculinity to—his new partner Dick.

In addition to his complex characterization of Perry’s tortured sense of his own sexuality, Capote deliberately echoes of a couple of key scenes in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1955), published ten years prior to In Cold Blood and depicting a similarly senseless murder as Capote’s text, to highlight the tragic consequences of the widespread oppression of gay men in the mid-twentieth-century. As John Tuttle points out, In Cold Blood signifies on “A Good Man” in several ways. Both figure the perpetrators of murder as polite and respectful towards their victims, and both include scenes in which mother figures—Bonnie Clutter in In Cold Blood and the grandmother in “A Good Man”—attempt to forge bonds with the criminals by expressing their disbelief that men as courteous as these could commit murder. Also, both texts feature “rhetorical flourish[es]” that describe murder as answering the cruelty of the world with personal “meanness” (Tuttle 145). Finally, I would argue that both Capote and O’Connor deliberately characterize their murderers using the grotesque. In “A Good Man,” the sweaty and flabby bodies of the Misfit’s gang embody the evils of a still racially and socially stratified South. Instead of in the South, In Cold Blood is set in Holcomb, Kansas, a city that Capote points out is located in nearly the exact middle of the nation and in which people simply live out “ordinary life” (5). In this way, the physically deformed bodies of both Perry—whose legs “seemed grotesquely inadequate to the grown-up bulk they supported” (15)—and Dick—who was injured in a car accident which left his fact “composed of mismatched parts” (31)—come to represent the social ills of “ordinary life” in middle America, the underlying unfairness and oppression that prevent the long-neglected and abused Perry from achieving a fulfilling relationship with another man and lead both men to lives of self-hatred and, ultimately, heinous crime.

Certainly, in that homosexuality was considered even in medical texts in the 1960s as a pathological illness, it is understandable that Capote would track the motives for the Clutter murder to the widespread oppression and misunderstanding of gay men. The truth exposed in Capote’s journalistic endeavor to write a non-fiction novel, then, is not only that Perry and Dick killed four innocent people “in cold blood” but also that the state in turn murdered Perry and Dick “in cold blood.” This book thus points to middle America’s chilling disregard for vulnerable lives—like the neglected and abused Perry’s, in particular—that don’t fit the “ordinary” mold. In order to more fully understand the extent of Perry and Dick’s victimization by cultural and political institutions, as well as the particular dynamics of their ultimately destructive queer relationship, more critical attention must be paid to the underlying homoerotic tensions that guide the action in this great work.

Works Cited

Cortez, Jessica. “In Cold Blood: The Bible of Crime Writing.” Kidnapping, Murder and Mayhem. Robert A. Waters. 1 Jul. 2010. Web. 13 Aug. 2010.

Knickerbocker, Conrad. “One Night on a Kansas Farm.” Rev. of In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. The New York Times. 16 Jan. 1966: n. pag. Web. 12 Aug. 2010.

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. “Feeling Like Killing: Queer Temporalities of Murderous Motives among Queer Children.” GLQ 13.2/3 (2007): 301-25.

Tim. “Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.” Random Observations. 13 Sept. 2009. Web. 13 Aug. 2010.

Tuttle, Jon. “Glimpses of ‘A Good Man’ in Capote’s In Cold Blood.” ANQ 1 (1988): 144-46.

Vivienne. “In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.” Serendipity. 8 Jun 2010. Web. 13 Aug. 2010.


  1. What an interesting argument. I was assigned this book in graduate school. We never spoke of anyone being gay.- Cindee

  2. That's funny! You should read it again and see if it isn't SO obvious! I've read a lot about this novel being on the cutting edge of New Journalism, so I'm assuming that that's why you read it.

  3. Even in the original film the overtones are there. Dick calls Perry honey several times. Subtle, but evident.

    1. That line was only in the movie. We do not know whether Hickock actually said it. Scott, the actor who played Hickock, was not comfortable uttering the line as he used it as a 'put down'.

  4. First movie where I read novel first then saw movie in early 1968.Eight years later I was a criminal investgator in the Plymouth Co.D.A.Office.At that time my job was to obtain DOJ funding with local crime statistics. With the help of Cong.Gerry Studds I was able to contact Truman Capone who singlehandedly had collated the most detailed data that showed 50% of all homicides are committed by homosexuals.We interviewed Homos at Bridgewater State Hospital for data for Grant proposals as well as criminal investigations.In the 1975-77 era that we interviewed Homo inmates.Every single one craved homo & pedophile sex.This was pre-AIDS 1970's.99%
    of people under 55 don't realize that Yaws.Bezel& Syphilis are the origins of AIDS.

  5. So 50% of all people in prison are "homo" according to you ?
    Can I please see some evidence or statistics before I post this on Facebook to show what an ignorant closet you are ?