In Cold Blood II
Bill Long 11/25/05
From Oregon to Kansas
Before I became fascinated with the Oregon death penalty in the late 1990s, and the case of Jeannace June Freeman, I lived in Kansas. I was a professor of history and government at Sterling College from 1990-96. With the collapse of St. Mary's of the Plains college in Dodge City, KS in the early 1990s, Sterling became the westernmost private college in the State of Kansas. This might not seem significant in any measure of importance in the world, but what it meant was that Sterling drew a good portion of its tiny student body (fewer than 500 when I was there) from farming communities in the 200 miles between Sterling and the CO border.* I had students from Hanston and Eureka, from Dodge
[*We also drew several students from Eastern Colorado, where population is so sparse that the high schools regularly play "6-man football" because the schools are so small.]
City and Garden City (abbreviated "Dodge" and "Garden" by the laconic locals), from Sharon Springs and Tribune. I even had one from Holcomb. Holcomb, as you recall, was the place seven miles West of Garden City, the county seat of Finney County, where the Clutters lived at the end of a quiet dirt road on the southwest outskirts of town. In November 1959 the town had fewer than 300 residents. Today, with Garden City being the "boom town" of Western KS, the population of "suburban" Holcomb has skyrocketed to more than 2,000.**
[**A recent multi-part series in the Lawrence (KS) Journal-World tries to look at the crime and the town 46 years after the event.}
I happened to stay in Garden City during the summer of 2005 at the home of a former student of mine, and I noted to him and his wife the imposing church structure which dominated the downtown--the First Methodist Church. This was the Clutter's Church, and small memorials to the four slain family members are in that building.
Thus, when I went to see the movie In Cold Blood on Thanksgiving Day I was filled with memories of Oregon and of Kansas, of my own work on the death penalty in Oregon's history and of my own knowledge of what it takes to be a researcher and writer. Rather than rehearsing the facts of this 1959 quadruple homicide case, which led to the execution of Hickock and Smith in 1965, I want to talk about how an author writes about such a crime, and the conflicting feelings that well up within as you research and write.
On Writing About Vicious Crimes
Three things that happen to an author when you begin to research and write about grisly homicides and the people who commit them are that you can't get it right, you become drawn into the life stories of the perpetrators and you you really do believe that writing about others' misfortunes will launch or enhance your literary career. In addition, the film nicely presents a fourth issue: the moral or ethical dilemma of the author when Capote denies to Smith, one of the defendants, that the title of his (not yet published) book is In Cold Blood because that title so offends Smith that he might not "talk" to Capote if that is the title. Everyone in the journalistic/writing field will say that you go for the story within the bounds of truthfulness, but that statement covers a multitude of sins. Let's briefly address these points.
1. What the retrospective reviews of the murders and of Capote's work in Garden City during those days shows is that when you speak of highly emotional subjects, especially the senseless murders of four sparkling citizens, you can't get it right. No matter how careful you are as a researcher, how fair you think you are being, how broad the net of your sources and how sympathetically you portray everyone, you cannot do it right. People will resent you for taking up the subject or for mischaracterizing them. As a writer you really don't understand the world that created the horrible situation that resulted. And, you don't have to live with the world that you examine for your book. You can move into the lives of people, get what you want, make it appealing to a broader audience, and then leave the scene of the crime, so to speak, with your "story." And this is what we see in the retrospectives about Capote's work in Garden City and Holcomb. Some say he scarcely mentions important people in the case or he mischaracterized Bonnie Clutter, the mother. Others say that he wined and dined a family in NYC who was especially important for his book. But, as an author, I can say that you can't really "do justice" where so much hurt and injustice lingers. You do the best you can.
2. You can't help identifying with or becoming sympathetic with some of your subjects. Even the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes have an appeal to them--not from the perspective of whether they are guilty or innocent, but from the angle of how they put their lives together to lead them to this horrible place. What is it in their thinking, their upbringing, their way of putting two and two together in their past that brought them to the places where they could take a life?
3. You are aware that when you write you are doing so not simply for yourself but for an audience "out there." People are titillated by stories of death and pain, and you as an author have to be aware that you are playing into that titillation to a degree. Capote was aware that this story was going to launch him into the literary stratosphere of American authors. Everyone who writes a story on murder and the death penalty sees not simply those realities but wants to see the story as indicative of broader realities or truths about American life. The death penalty and murder then become a sort of microcosm of macrocosmic issues that the author tries to limn. Capote talked about the intersection of worlds in his book; I spoke of the Oregon death penalty as a sort of mirror to show us how we view public policy. Everyone uses death for something else.
4. Finally, the film neatly presents the issue of journalistic ethics when Capote tries to deny to Smith that the title of his yet-unpublished book will be In Cold Blood, when Capote has already decided on that title. As an author you go for the story, but you go for truthfulness. Capote knew the kind of story that would sell to his New York (and national) audience. And so he told it so that it would do so. Did he have to cut back on the facts, or evade the "truth" of some matters? Surely, he did. But most highly creative and controversial efforts break not simply the customs of the time but also probably involve some questionable ethical decisions.
How might you continue the discussion on these subjects?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long