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In Cold Blood | Study Guide

Truman Capote

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In Cold Blood | Persons Unknown (Part 4) | Summary



Perry Smith keeps two big boxes filled with mementos, one of which is a composition about him, written by his father to help Perry obtain parole. Perry keeps this out of both love and hate for his father, an Irish cowboy who'd met Perry's mother, a Cherokee and "champion bronc-rider," on the rodeo circuit where they formed the team of "Tex & Flo." His father's composition explains how he taught Perry and his siblings right from wrong; how Perry never started trouble in school but would defend himself when attacked; and how Perry is like his father, for they both prefer to be outdoors, to be by themselves, and to work for themselves.

But in his letter, Perry's father has left out other facts of Perry's life, particularly his abuse as a child. When his parents retired from the rodeo circuit, they settled near Reno, and Flo took to drinking. When Perry was six, she took the children and moved to San Francisco. Perry often ran away, hoping to find his father. His mother left him at a Catholic orphanage where he was mistreated and eventually tossed out. His mother then left him at a Salvation Army children's shelter where he suffered further abuse: a nurse nearly drowned him in a bath filled with ice water. After Perry finished third grade, he and his father moved around the country in a primitive trailer. They ended up in Alaska, where they nearly froze; but Perry learned to search for gold, hunt and skin animals, and use a gun.

After a fight with his father when Perry was 16, the young man joined the Merchant Marines where he was a sexual target, as he was when he joined the army. He fought in the Korean War and earned the Bronze Star but did not get promoted because he wouldn't "roll over" for his sergeant. He reunited with his father in Alaska, but when his father's idea to open a hunting lodge failed, his father turned his anger and disappointment on Perry. Arguing over food one day, Perry's father pointed a gun at him and ordered him to leave. A series of events, including "larceny, jail break, car theft," eventually landed Perry in a Kansas prison.

Perry also holds onto a letter from his sister Barbara, which reveals why he hates her. She blames Perry for their father's poor behavior and abandonment and for ending up in prison. His other sister, Fern, was an alcoholic who fell out a window, and his brother shot himself after his wife committed suicide. His "brilliant" prison friend Willie-Jay has advised him to limit contact and correspondence with Barbara because her letters can increase his "already dangerous anti-social instincts."


The revelations about Perry Smith's past both help to explain his psychotic behavior and build a sort of horrified sympathy for the murderer. Despite needing to pare down his belongings, Perry can't throw away most of his mementos, not even his father's composition and his sister's letter. Barbara, who accuses Perry of not respecting their father, is, in fact, the only kid in the family who gets out and does well for herself. Because she never lived with their father, she has no idea how it feels to freeze every night, to be underfed, and to not have clean clothes. Nor does Barbara know how their father used Perry as a source of free labor and never supported Perry's love for music, art, and literature.

Perry spent his entire childhood and early adulthood trying to survive abuse from people who denied they were abusers. It is not surprising his mental health was extremely shaky, to the point of paranoia and fits of uncontrollable rage. Perry's father feared him, as did Barbara, but they both refused to acknowledge what had been done to Perry, whom no one ever protected. Perry's need to hold onto evidence of how people had hurt him suggests the mind of a person who is not well.

Perry's need to stick with Dick Hickock, someone he sees as strong and decisive, is also not surprising. Because no one in his life ever protected him, Perry wants someone who will. Yet he discovers Dick is an immoral sneak and liar who steals from his friends, uses people, preys on young girls, and cheats anyone to benefit himself.

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