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Psychological Trauma in In Cold Blood


Brian Conniff's article, "Psychological Accidents: In Cold Blood and Ritual Sacrifice," explains how Truman Capote's nonfiction novel demonstrates the psychological trauma that the murderers and the townspeople of Holcomb face after the murders of the Clutter family. Conniff begins his article by stating that in the last twenty-five years imprisonment and execution has reached an all-time high level of obsession among the American public. Since this type of violence has been so normalized it is rarely properly understood (1). With this in mind, prison literature has continually suggested that "the most fortified barriers are not the physical walls and fences between the prison, and the outside world; the most fortified barriers are the psychological walls between the preoccupations of everyday life . . .and the conscious realization that punishment is the most self-destructive kind of national addiction" (Conniff 1).


Conniff believes that these psychological walls are most confronted in and clearly seen in In Cold Blood. When Perry Smith, one of the murderers, confesses to the crime to Agent Alvin Dewey, Agent Dewey is surprisingly disappointed. Agent Dewey discovers that the truth is more disturbing than anything he would have ever imagined. Conniff writes, "The truth, Dewey discovers, is at once more ordinary and more disturbing than anything he has been able to imagine" (2). Smith and Hickock did not murder the Clutters for revenge and they didn't even know their victims. The crime was a virtually impersonal act and Agent Dewey does not want to believe this (2).


At first Capote was not concerned with the capture and punishment of the criminals. Capote underestimated the community's need for retribution and its need to return to normalcy by enacting a violence of its own (2). Before the murders the community lived an unfearful life, no locked doors, no suspicion of one another. This "normalcy" could not be restored until the murderers were caught and punished (2). When the community began to lock its doors at night, it was trying to keep the invader from outside the community out (2). When the Hickock and Smith were finally caught the community categorized them as animals, this "allowed the community to deprive them of their humanity" (2). Conniff goes on to say, "a common normalcy ultimately depends upon the complete exclusion of outsiders, the exorcism of these mysterious animals is just as important as their discovery and capture" (3).


Agent Dewey is responsible for solving these murders. He comes up with two concepts. The first is that there is one killer, who knew the family and the house. The second is that there is one murderer with and accomplice. Agent Dewey is reluctant to accept these explanations. The first involves careful planning and this type of rationality "distinguishes people from his community from animals and madmen" (3). The second theory involves two people reaching the same degree of rage, psychopathic rage (3). Agent Dewey finds it difficult to understand how two people could reach this same degree of rage. Agent Dewey's two concepts exclude each other, he does not want to believe either one. He wants to believe that someone completely isolated, mentally and socially committed the murders (4).


With the turn of events, Truman Capote is forced to travel deeper into the center of the American psyche (4). He was there with the crowd when the murderers were brought back to Kansas for the trial. Capote describes the scene, "the crowd fell silent at the sight of them as if they were surprised to see them humanly shaped"(4). Conniff writes, "This amazement at the sight of the killers is a clue to the "effect of fear" that is, of all the effects the novel tries to document, the most resistant to conscious awareness" (4).


The community cannot return to normal until the fear and the ritual are fused into another act of violence (Conniff 5). In order for the community to mend the internal distrust they must "seize upon a sacrificable victim or victims" (5). Conniff writes, "Capote's depiction of the murder trial is, in effect, an attempt to demonstrate that this contradiction can only be overcome if [Hickock's and Smith's] metal states are treated as irrelevant" (5). By doing this the community reassures itself that justice is being carried out and establishing the adequacy of the sacrificable victims (Conniff 5).


Truman Capote confronts the difficult problem of murderers who seem rational and controlled, but whose homicidal acts are senseless, by including in the novel the testimony that was excluded from the courtroom (Conniff 6). He also includes the detailed psychological profiles that the defense's witnesses would have provided. Conniff goes on to say, "Capote portrays the trial as little more than an official sanction to ensure the execution, by including the excluded psychiatric testimony" (6). Conniff writes, "Capote demonstrates that violence is not just a foreign threat, something outside normal life, but that sacrificial violence is the culmination of the sense of normalcy that holds the town together" (6).


Even after all that Capote has done he falsifies the ending of his nonfiction novel. For him and maybe for everyone else, it gives a sense of closure. The murderers have been displaced ( Conniff 7).


Sources Cited

Conniff, Brian. "Psychological Accidents: In Cold Blood and ritual sacrifice." The Midwest Quarterly 35 (1993): 77-95. Expanded Academic ASAP. 20 Sept. 2000 <>



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