The Complicated Relationship Between Kansans and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood
Jessa Crispin on the Allure of “Convenient” Stories
In the spring of 2016 I am sitting in the office of an important agent, and I’m thinking I wore the wrong lipstick. I forgot to bring the lipstick I was wearing with me from the terrible Brooklyn room I rented via the morally questionable Airbnb. It’s a forty-five-minute train ride from the Midtown Manhattan office, too far to return to just for the sake of my fading glamour, so I go into the Sephora a couple blocks from the agency and panic-buy three lipsticks, only to notice as soon as I leave the store that they are all impossibly wrong. The one I put on is too wet and glossy, I have no idea if it is spilling out past my lipline, if it is maybe now down on my chin, and this guy represents important people who probably all know how to properly apply cosmetics and don’t walk around with magenta smears across their chin.
I am trying to sell a story. I am trying to sell the story of the Pianaltos as a book. Why am I doing this. We’re in a true-crime boom. We love to tell stories about dead white women. So I’m pitching this book, because if you’re a writer, at least when something terrible happens to you or near you or to someone you kind of know, you can often transform that terrible act into a six-figure book deal with a possible Netflix option.
Every dead white woman is a story these days. An eight-part podcast or an eight-part Netflix docuseries or just a book. The hottest story of the year, the year before I sat here with lipstick bleeding into the cracks around my lips, was the story of a young woman murdered by her boyfriend . . . or was she? It inspired this other podcast I’ve been listening to, a young woman who killed herself in a strange way . . . or did she?
So I’m pitching the story of these dead women, and he keeps repeating it back to me, but with buzzwords swapped in. I say, “the claustrophobia of a rural community,” and he says, “smalltown secrets.” I say, “people say he seemed depressed,” and he says, “a tormented mind.” But still, it’s not quite working.I distrust a good story. I want to interfere, I don’t want tidy, I don’t want my reader to feel resolved and relieved at the end. I want everyone to see the mess.
The problem with the idea I’m pitching is that there’s no dot dot dot. It’s pretty clear who killed who, and it’s pretty clear why. There’s nothing to chase or tantalize. The agent keeps looking around. I’m trying to hold his attention.
“Then there was this other murder.”
He nods and adjusts some paper on his desk. “Go on.”
“This year, the trial is coming up. See, there was this kid, he lived down the street from me, he ended up murdering his best friend.”
He’s back. “Was it drugs?”
“Well, there hasn’t been a trial yet, but it seems they were involved in a series of small robberies and break-ins together. The actual death might have been an accident, he’s not talking yet.”
“I see, okay. How do we connect these.”
“Well, he was the sheriff’s son. And uh, the sheriff before him, he was the sheriff when the other murder happened, and people always said that he destroyed things at the crime scene.”
“Wait, which crime scene.”
“The Pianalto murder. The murder-suicide. He was the first one to respond. The rumors were he was burning something when the other cops showed up. They were friends. Maybe he burned a suicide note, no one knows.”
“I’m getting it. You’ll go back for the trial, you’ll uncover this small-town mystery that makes you think of this other mystery, men and their secrets, the corruption of the police . . .”
“But I don’t really want to go ba—”
“There’s a Maggie Nelson book, you should model it on that. It could be the next In Cold Blood.” “But I hate In Cold Blood . . .”
He sits up, the meeting is clearly over. “Email me when you have a proposal.”
It’s not like I don’t have plenty of other models for how to write this. Everyone who has the slightest connection to a murder is now writing a book about it. No longer relegated to the back of the bookstore in trashy mass market paperbacks printed on cheap yellowish paper, they are all released in hardback by prestigious presses. They fill the New Releases table at McNally Jackson bookstore. There’s the one where the author’s cousin is accused of murdering two girls, and she tries to prove him innocent. There’s the other one where the girl she kind of knew in high school is murdered. There’s the Maggie Nelson story of the dead aunt. There are pen pals and long-lost friends, nieces and step-cousins, all murdered or murdering, and the authors are eager to tell the tale. But, you know, in an elevated kind of way. Bloody, but make it art.
All of these writers must have felt like they got a lucky break when someone they kind of knew was stabbed to death or strangled and raped or shot in the back of the head. Finally, something to write about.
And why not tell the story? Doesn’t telling stories make things better? By raising awareness or whatever. But we’ve been telling these stories of dead women for decades, centuries, and the bodies keep piling up.
I notice that the closer one is to the murdered, the less elevated the book. If it was your mother, your sister, your daughter, your lover, those books get tawdry covers and tawdry publishers. It’s hard to elevate your prose when it comes out in a series of shrieks and sobs. And who wants to turn the once living, once breathing, once complicated and squishy, once beautiful and exasperating human being into just a story? Not just a story, but an entertainment.
What is my motivation for telling this story? Besides the fact that many days it is the only one banging around in my head? I sit down, try to write the proposal, but writing the proposal means tidying up something supremely messy. Turning blood into words, like some sort of demented, artistic Jesus. Less Jesus, more storefront magician. I keep thinking, people are going to be entertained reading this. They will only kind of pay attention to it on an airplane. They will speculate as to motivations on social media. They will distill this trauma into a hundred-word review on Goodreads. “So there was this teacher who one day took out his hunting rifle and . . .”
Then, just maybe, if I insert myself into the narrative in just the right way, if the book ascends to the god-level of Film and Television Adaptation, I can get Claire Danes to play me. She ugly-cries the way I do, she conveys the serious intelligence of a writer.
Writing is an act of tidying. It creates bone-hard structure out of floppy masses. It invents meaning where there is none, it domesticates the feral, it removes potency from the powerful. And isn’t that the relief of it? I wanted to write the story of this murder so I could have a story to tell myself. One that was understandable and relatable. I wanted the story on the page so it would get the hell out of my head.
But I distrust a good story. I want to interfere, I don’t want tidy, I don’t want my reader to feel resolved and relieved at the end. I want everyone to see the mess.
Which is why I hate In Cold Blood. It’s too good of a story. Back in the eighth-grade classroom, the book was exciting. When you come from Kansas, you rarely pick up a book about Kansas. You don’t see your small-town life reflected back to you, unless it’s turned sentimental (see: Our Town) or maudlin (see: Our Town). Rarely is our home made the setting of action, especially something exciting, like a murder and run from the law. Two men, two outsiders, invade a house in an innocent Kansas town and slaughter an entire family. Having heard that the farming family has a safe loaded with cash, they mean to rob them. Finding nothing, they murder them instead. The outsiders then go on the run, until they are hunted down by the law, found guilty by a jury of their peers, and executed for their crimes.
The story is almost mythical, and myths have a special hold on the mind. It is sweeping in its themes: lost innocence, big-city evil penetrating the quiet, simple goodness of small-town life, a society growing colder and more depraved. It inspired decades of retellings and supplements. Surviving family members, friends of the family, family and friends of the murderers, other writers from Kansas, writers who had nothing to do with Kansas, wrote memoirs, novelizations, comic books, documentaries, films, television shows, all trying to add a new perspective to—or cash in on—Capote’s story of murder in a small town.
It couldn’t have been more effectively cast. The wholesome-looking family, well groomed with bright, friendly smiles. They could all have been stars in a 1950s sitcom where the biggest problem the family faced was the boy breaking a neighbor’s window with a ball as he practiced for the big game. The daughter’s most pressing dilemma would be whose invitation to accept to the school dance. The parents would give wise counsel and exude a quiet, non-demonstrative kind of love.As much as we protest, the story of the murder of the Clutter family is convenient for us Kansans to tell.
Then we have the perpetrators, the criminal element. One, Perry Smith, is darkly complected, being half-Native. The other, Dick Hickock, looks much like the teenage boy he murdered, with his fair hair and strong chin, if only half of his face wasn’t slightly caved in and twisted from a car accident and catastrophic head injury. Both Smith and Hickock bear scars from accidents of body and fate. Car crashes, a violent father, abandonment, poverty, military service, institutional abuse. You can tell just by looking at them that something is off. You’re tipped off by a limp, say, or racial mixing, or eyes that don’t quite line up. When Kansans saw the men’s pictures in the newspaper announcing their arrest they must have thought, “Ah, of course, yes, the deformities of the body are manifestations of the deformities of the soul.” That’s big with Protestants.
“No one ever locked their front doors,” one of the town’s citizens said in one of the documentary miniseries that promised to tell the “real story” of the murders, but ended up telling the exact same story that always gets told. “That changed overnight.”
There is a subset of Kansans that hate In Cold Blood and the industry built around this slaughter of a family. According to them, Capote was enchanted by the evil when he should have been focused on the goodness of the small-town community. He followed the more exciting story of murderers who take to the road, rather than the narrative dead end of the happy family. The victims, the town, we as Kansans, felt unseen by his book. It was our story, it happened to us, we should be the stars. (I think the protests were less about getting the story wrong and more about who got to tell it. An outsider. A queer, at that. A big-city type—just another violation by the evil that dwells outside the tidy home.) There is no greater betrayal than to speak a family’s or a town’s secrets in a small town like this. Whispered gossip within the community, okay. Broadcasting its faults to the outside world, unforgivable.
As much as we protest, though, the story of the murder of the Clutter family is convenient for us Kansans to tell. That’s why we keep telling it. Not because it hasn’t been told already, not because its original teller left anything important out. We tell it because it presents a story of Kansas and of family and of the small town as we want it to be told: the evil comes from the outside.
Reprinted with permission from My Three Dads: Patriarchy on the Great Plains by Jessa Crispin, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2022 by Jessa Crispin. All rights reserved.