Study Guide

In Cold Blood Madness

By Truman Capote


She was "nervous," she suffered "little spells"—such were the sheltering expressions used by those close to her. Not that the truth concerning "poor Bonnie's afflictions" was in the least a secret; everyone knew she had been an on-and-off psychiatric patient the last half-dozen years. (1.9)

Bonnie's story provides our first look at mental illness. (We know there's a possibly crazy killer or two on the loose but we haven't met them yet.) We learn that Bonnie suffered episodes of postpartum depression and that her depression never really let up. It's our first look at a flaw in the otherwise perfect Clutter family, and seems to set us up for thinking, "This family's vulnerable." It's pretty clear that nobody really understands Bonnie's depression. There wasn't much treatment available back then.

[…] but Dick became convinced that Perry was that rarity, "a natural born killer,"—absolutely sane but conscienceless, and capable of dealing with or without motive, the coldest-blooded deathblows. It was Dick's theory that such a gift could, under his supervision, be profitably exploited. Having reached this conclusion, he proceeded to woo Perry […] It was important, however, that Perry not suspect this—not until Perry, with his gift, had furthered Dick's ambitions. (1.205)

This must be the all-time dynamic duo of sociopaths. (Well, maybe tied with York and Latham, their homicidal death row roommates.) This quote reveals both Perry's killer instincts and Dick's callous use of them to get what he wants. Here's what psychiatrists believe are symptoms of sociopathy: ability to act witty and charming; skill at flattery and manipulating other people's emotions; breaking the law repeatedly; disregarding the safety of others; frequent lying, stealing, and fighting; no guilt or remorse; inability to tolerate frustration. Beginning to sound like anyone we know? Talk about a textbook case…

In some ways, old Perry was "spooky as hell." Take for example, that temper of his. He could slide into a fury "quicker than ten drunk Indians. And yet, you wouldn't know it. "He might be ready to kill you, but you'd never know it, not to look at or listen to." (2.106)

Perry's sudden explosions of anger scare Dick, too. Now that's saying something. You can see why Perry can be so dangerous.

After all it was painful to imagine that one might be "not just right"—particularly if what was wrong was not your fault but "maybe a thing you were born with." Look at his family! […] His mother, an alcoholic, had strangled on her own vomit. […] Fern, the other daughter, had jumped out of a window of a San Francisco hotel. […] And there was Jimmy, the older boy—Jimmy, who had one day driven his wife to suicide and killed himself the next. (2.115)

Perry must have read this article about the heritability of substance abuse and criminal behavior.  Actually, there's a lot of evidence that certain kinds of mental illness can be inherited, but does this mean that life experiences can't make it much worse?

"The murderous potential can become activated, especially if some disequilibrium is already present, when the victim-to-be is unconsciously perceived as a key figure in some past traumatic configuration." (4.172)

We think Perry said it better. This sounds exactly like what happened at the moment Perry killed Herb Clutter.

Spells of helplessness occurred, moments when he "remembered things"—blue light exploding in a black room, the glass eyes of a big toy bear—and when voices, a particular few words, started nagging his mind: "Oh, no! No, please! No! No! No! No! Oh, please don't, please!" and certain sounds returned—a silver dollar rolling across a floor, boot steps on hardwood stairs, and the sounds of breathing, the gasps, the hysterical inhalations of a man with a severed windpipe. (2.114)

Perry's describing having flashbacks, sudden episodes of vivid imagery of the murders. This is part of what his psychiatrist said was "dissociation." Flashbacks are a common experience for people who've been through life-threatening traumatic events in the past.

I didn't realize what I'd done until I'd heard the sound. Like somebody drowning. Screaming under water. (3.486)

This is Perry's first-hand account of dissociation: the experience of doing something in an altered state of consciousness, like an out-of-body thing. It's one explanation for how somebody who admittedly thought the Clutters were nice people—he even chatted with Nancy for a while on her bed—could then go on to methodically kill each of them. Or, he could be making this up.

One deceived salesman said, "He [Hickock] did the work. A very smooth talker, very convincing." (3.25)

Charming and deceiving—he's great at it. That's why he's such a good paperhanger. (Impress your friends with this cool, in-the-know word for someone who passes bad checks.)

[Dick] was sorry he felt as he did about her [a twelve-year-old girl], for his sexual interest in female children was a failing of which he felt "sincerely ashamed" [. . .] because other people might not think it normal. That [being normal] was something he was sure he was [. . .] Seducing pubescent girls, as he had done "eight or nine" times in the past several years, did not disprove it, for, if the truth were known, most real men had the same desires he had. (3.203)

Do you think most real men have sexual thoughts about 12 year-olds? It's hard to believe Dick is "sincerely ashamed" if he says that. The murders of the Clutter family may have been a byproduct of Dick's sexual perversion. He admits that he stuck around the Clutter house mostly to rape Nancy, and that he'd been thinking about this since he first heard from Floyd Wells about the family. Otherwise, he may have left after discovering there was no money there.

"[…] Andrews suffered no delusions, no false perceptions, no hallucinations, but the primary illness of separation of thinking from feeling. He understood the nature of his acts, and that they were prohibited, and that he was subject to punishment. […] And in his own seclusive world it seemed to him just as right to kill his mother as to kill an animal or fly." (4.219)

This is the psychiatrist's diagnosis of Lowell Lee Andrews, the boy who killed his family and seemed completely indifferent about it. The diagnosis was "simple schizophrenia (no delusions or hallucinations)." Later, we learn that one of the psychiatrists also thought that Perry suffered from schizophrenia, but not the simple type—paranoid schizophrenia, based on Perry's belief that everyone was out to ruin him.