When we meet Perry Smith, he's a thief on parole from the Kansas State Penitentiary, an idealist who dreams of being magically delivered from his troubled life, a man who lies about killing a man just to impress. He's had an abusive childhood with an alcoholic mother who choked on her own vomit, a father who wouldn't send him to school and dragged him around the country in a makeshift trailer. Two of his siblings committed suicide and his remaining sister is afraid of him. His only lasting relationships, apart from a friendship with an Indian logger, have been with fellow convicts, and it's one of these relationships that ultimately gets him involved in a brutal murder and a trip to the gallows. His childhood traumas have left him with some childlike behaviors—he still wets the bed and sucks his thumb when he cries in his sleep.
Perry's a complicated guy, full of contradictions and quick changes. He's Capote's most complex character, and we close the book wondering how we could feel sympathy for this guy. But we do.
Here's how Capote does it.
We learn about Perry from a lot of sources: his own reminiscences, letters from his father to the Parole Board (totally objective, we're sure), and reports from his sister, the detectives and the author. Perry attributes the sorry state of his life to a childhood filled with constant violence and neglect. Up until he was five, his parents were traveling rodeo performers. The family led a pretty marginal existence, always on the move and often living in a broken-down trailer on "mush and Hershey Kisses and condensed milk" (2.171).
But he was a pretty happy kid until his father started brutally beating his mother, who took to drinking and promiscuity. Perry saw and heard his mother "entertaining" a series of men. She eventually dragged her kids to San Francisco, where Perry was constantly getting into trouble. He blames it on having "no rule or discipline, or anyone to show me right from wrong" (4.54). He ended up in a series of orphanages and Salvation Army homes, where he was beaten for wetting the bed and tortured by the overseers.
There was this one nurse, she used to call me "n*****" and say there wasn't any difference between n*****s and Indians. Oh Jesus, was she an Evil Bastard! Incarnate. What she used to do, she'd fill a tub with ice cold water, put me in it, and hold me under until I was blue. (2.172)
His father retrieved him and they lived together for awhile, always moving on so that Perry never had a chance to go to school.
"I finished the third grade," Perry recalled, "which was the finish." (2.175)
By the time Perry's old enough to leave home and make a life of his own, the psychological damage has been done. He joins the Merchant Marine and then the Army, where he earns a Bronze Star but never gets promoted. His plans to run the hunting lodge with his father fall through, and for the next four years up until the time of the murders, he leads a vagabond life, working odd jobs, going hungry and ending up in prison on larceny and jailbreak charges.
To add insult to injury, or in this case, to add injury to insult, Perry gets into a motorcycle accident after his Army discharge. It leaves him with crippled legs and constant pain. He's got a bizarre appearance:
Sitting, he had seemed a more normal-sized man, a powerful man, with the shoulders, the arms, the thick, crouching torso of a weight-lifter […] but some sections of him were not in proportion to others. His tiny feet, encased in short black boots […] would have neatly fitted into a delicate lady's dancing slippers; when he stood up, he was no taller than a twelve-year-old child, and suddenly looked, standing on stunted legs that seemed grotesquely inadequate to the grown-up bulk they supported, not like a well-built truck driver but like a retired jockey, overblown and muscle-bound. (1.19)
Perry blames the accident on a rainy road, but his father guesses it was Perry's need for speed that did him in.
Perry doesn't get any.
A huge part of Perry's personality is his view of himself as an intelligent, sensitive, creative person who was thwarted by life and who's filled with unrecognized talent and smarts. He's consumed with resentment about it. He sees himself as an extraordinary guy, who could have been somebody if given the chance. He coulda been a contender.
Perry always craved an education. When he joined the army, the recruiter had to fake his test results to get him in.
From this time on I started to realize the importance of an education. This only added to the hatred and bitterness I felt for others. I began to get into fights. (4.56)
In an emotional outburst with his sister, she recalls him saying,
"You think I like myself? Oh, the man I could have been! But that bastard never gave me a chance. He wouldn't let me go to school. O.K. O.K. I was a bad kid. But the time came I begged to go to school. I happen to have a brilliant mind. In case you don't know. A brilliant mind and talent plus. But no education, because he didn't want me to learn anything, only how to tote and carry for him. Dumb. Ignorant. That's the way he wanted me to be. But you, Bobo, you went to school. You and Jimmy and Fern. Every damn one of you got an education. Everybody but me. And I hate you, all of you—Dad and everybody. (3.132)
Even on Death Row, he welcomed the chance to write about himself for the court psychiatrist, who he saw as a fellow intellectual:
There's much I haven't said that may interest you. I have always felt a remarkable exhilaration being among people with a purpose and a sense of dedication to carry out that purpose. (4.60)
And seconds before the noose is tied around his neck, he says,
Maybe I had something to contribute—something. (4.312)
Throughout the book, we learn that Perry does, in fact, have talents. His outdoor skills are many—he can skin a bear, build a cabin, hunt and trap. He gets his GED in prison; his elegant handwriting impresses Agent Nye; he draws a portrait of Jesus for Rev. Post and spends his time in prison painting pictures of the inmates' kids. Capote wants us to think hard about what would have happened if life had happened differently for Perry.
Aside from a few mentions of one-night stands, Perry doesn't seem to have much interest in sex. In fact, Dick thinks he's a prude. He can't stand Dick's dirty jokes and is disgusted by Dick's chasing after women. When Dick's having sex in the same room with a woman he picked up in Mexico, he thought it was a "nuisance" (2.219), not a turn-on.
Perry's self-consciousness about his mangled legs probably keeps him from pursuing women.
On the beach in Florida,
Dick wore bathing trunks, but Perry, as in Acapulco, refused to expose his injured legs—he feared the sight might "offend" other beach-goers—and therefore sat fully clothed, even wearing socks and shoes. (3.100)
Perry's especially repulsed by Dick's interest in young girls.
[…] he had "no respect for people who can't control themselves sexually," especially when the lack of control involved what he called "pervertiness"—"bothering kids,"queer stuff, rape. And he thought he made his views obvious to Dick; indeed, hadn't they almost had a fistfight when quite recently he had prevented Dick from raping a terrified young girl? (3.208)
We're left with an impression of Perry as almost asexual. It's hard to square the image of him as a bed-wetting, thumb-sucking childlike character with a grown-up sexual person.
This book is an account of four unimaginably brutal murders. And Perry Smith committed them all. This is a guy who slit the throat of an innocent man, and then methodically shot him and the rest of his terrorized family. After the murders, he was about to bash in the head of a guy who picked him up hitchhiking, and when the unsuspecting driver talked about his five kids, just thought, "Five kids—well, too bad" (3.71)
But Capote doesn't make it easy for us to hate the guy. Like we said, he's portrayed as someone full of contradictions. In the parole board letter, his father writes:
Happy disposition—yes and no, very serious if mistreated he never forgets. (2.172)
If he sees that the Boss appreciates his work he will go out of his way for him. Tell him in a pleasant way how you want it done. He is very touchie […]. How well I know that Perry is goodhearted if you treat him rite. (2.175-77)
Perry's sister sure doesn't buy the sensitive, gentle line about Perry:
He can seem so warmhearted and sympathetic. Gentle. He cries so easily. Sometimes music sets him off, and when he was a little boy he used to cry because he thought the sunset was so beautiful. Or the moon. Oh, he can fool you. He can make you feel so sorry for him—. (2.124)
On the other hand, when he stayed with Joe James, the Indian logger who took him in after his motorcycle accident, he became a teacher and mentor to Joe's kids:
They were pretty good to me, Joe and his family. I was on crutches, I was pretty helpless. So to give me something to do, I tried to make myself useful. I started what became a sort of school. The pupils were Joe's kids, along with some of their friends, and we held classes in the parlor. I was teaching harmonica and guitar. Drawing. And penmanship. Everybody always remarks what beautiful penmanship I have. (2.177)
Joe testifies about those days at Perry's trial:
Perry was a likable kid, well liked around the neighborhood. He never done one thing out of the way to my knowledge. (4.161)
In fact, there's something about Perry that gets to people. Mrs. Meier, the Undersheriff's wife who befriended Perry in jail, had this to say about him:
[…] I decided—well, he wasn't the worst man I ever saw. That night, after I'd gone to bed, I said as much to my husband. But Wendle snorted. Wendle was one of the first on the scene after the crime was discovered. He said he wished I'd been out at the Clutter place when they found the bodies. Then I could have judged for myself how gentle Mr. Smith was. (4.5)
And how's this for a death row tearjerker scene with Mrs. Meier, just after Perry hears the verdict:
I turned on the radio. Not to hear him. But I could. Crying like a child. He'd never broke down before, showed any sign of it. Well, I went to him. […] He reached out his hand. He wanted me to hold his hand, and I did, I held his hand, and all he said was "I'm embraced by shame." (4.196)
We'll give you a minute here to pull yourselves together.
Apart from what other people say about him, the reader can't help but noticing (you noticed, right?) that Perry actually does a couple of honorable things. He tries to get Dick to buy black stockings to cover their faces during the robbery so that they don't have to kill anybody. He stops Dick from raping Nancy Clutter and seducing the young girl in Florida. He admits he shot all four people so that Dick's parents won't have to go to their graves thinking their son's a killer. And then there's that pillow under Kenyon Clutter's head…
One thing that Perry's father and sister tell us is that he's always had a violent temper. Treat him well and he's a good guy, but "treat him mean and you get a buzz saw" (2.167). His sister recalls the time when Perry shoved her against the wall and threatened to "throw you in the river" (3.131). Willie-Jay warned Perry about controlling his "dangerous antisocial instincts" (2.207).
Perry knows this about himself, too:
Dad snatched a biscuit out of my hand, and said I ate too much, what a selfish, greedy bastard I was, and why didn't I get out, he don't want me there no more. He carried on like that till I couldn't stand it. My hands got hold of his throat. My hands, but I couldn't control them. They wanted to choke him to death. (2.178)
Is this easily triggered, poorly controlled rage what kills Herb Clutter?
I told him [Herb] it wasn't long till morning, and how in the morning somebody would find them, and that all of it, me and Dick and all, would seem like something they dreamed. I wasn't kidding him. I didn't want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat. (3.286)
Complicated? We'd say that's understating it a bit. So which is it—a heartless, psychotic murderer or a lost soul who never had a chance? We report. You decide.