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Nature Vs Nurture in Truman Capote’s in Cold Blood

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Sometimes people commit crimes and they never have a reason for why they did so. There are two kinds of human behavior determined by the environment, either shaped by experiences during a person’s life or through a person’s genes; also known as nature or nurture. Nature refers to the genetic material that a person inherits from their parents. Nurture refers to experiences gained throughout a lifetime. For example, were you loved, abused, or neglected? Throughout the story of “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote, the reader learns what kind of people Richard Hickock and Perry Smith really are. These men brutally killed four members of the Clutter family after robbing them. This essay will discuss nature versus nurture debate on the example of this story.

Herb, Bonnie Mae, Kenyon, and Nancy Mae were brutally murdered on November 15, 1959 by two ex-convicts recently paroled from the Kansas State Penitentiary. Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith were in prison when they heard from another prisoner, known as Floyd Wells, that Herb Clutter (father) was very wealthy and had money stashed in a safe in his house. Floyd had previously worked for the Clutter family. After Hickock and Smith were released from prison on parole, they made a plan to get their hands on the stashed cash. Once they got to the Clutter home, just outside of Holcomb, Kansas, they realized there was not a safe that contained money, so they woke Herb Clutter up. Mr. Clutter gave them the bit of cash he had and told them he had no more. They awoke the other three members of the family and ransacked the rest of the house acquiring no more than roughly fifty dollars, a pair of binoculars and a transistor radio. Once they had all they could find, Dick and Perry executed in cold blood all four family members. When officers arrived, Herb Clutter, 48, lay sprawled on a mattress in the basement, stabbed, his throat slashed and a shotgun to his head. He wore pajamas, his hands were bound, and his mouth was taped shut. On a couch in an adjoined room was 15-year-old Kenyon Neal Clutter. He was bound, gagged, and shot in the head. In separate upstairs bedrooms were the bodies of Mrs. Bonnie Mae Clutter, 45, and Nancy Mae Clutter, 16. Mrs. Clutter was bound and gagged. Nancy was only bound. Both mother and daughter had been shot in the head.

Dick’s character is portrayed as the evil motivator of the crime. Since he did not have a significantly troubling childhood, it was often referenced that Dick was a criminal because it was in his nature. His nurturing childhood was brought up several times, he even made statements about how good his family was to him. Unlike Perry, there is little sympathy created for Dick’s character since there was little to be sympathetic of. “The glory of having everybody at his mercy, that’s what excited him.” This is a statement made by Perry about Dick. It explains how Dick likes the feeling of power he receives from threatening people and committing crimes. It is in Dick’s nature to want to subdue others to his own will. As stated when the pair was in Florida, “Why should that big-shot bastard have all the luck? With a knife in his hand, he, Dick, had power. Big shot bastards like that had better be careful or he might open them up and let a little of their hick spill on the floor”. Dick’s desire to have power is part of his nature and is what drives him to continue to commit crimes.

“Mr. Hickock spent three hours with his son…” having your boy hang, knowing he will, nothing worse can happen to a man”. This quote describes the scene of Mr. Hickock attacking Perry for being the real culprit, after Dick told him that Perry was the one who murdered the Clutters. Mr. Hickock believes that Dick started making bad decisions, such as gambling, cheating on his wife, and writing bad checks after a car accident in 1950 which he sustained a concussion. Mr. Hickock continued to love his son even after the heinous crime he committed, which portrays Dick’s loving family and the love he experienced throughout his lifetime. The criminal psychiatrist that examined Richard for his trial agrees that it is possible that Dick’s behavior is the result of organic brain damage from the accident. A lack of nurture can be ruled out as a motivation for the crime, leading one to believe that it was in his nature to kill. Dick himself says, “I know it is wrong…. It seems to be an impulse”, stating his involuntary desire to do harm upon others. It is simply in Dick’s nature to be a criminal.

According to Capote, Perry’s unfortunate childhood is a factor which drove him to become a criminal, and ultimately murder the Clutter family. His terrible upbringing and lack of a nurturing background is brought up multiple times in the novel. Perry grew up watching his mother sleep around. He also remembers when he was six years old, holding a gun to his brothers head and yelling “Bang”. As Smith got older, crimes were committed. Smith admitted to cutting the throat of the father, Herbert Clutter, as well as shooting both Herbert and Kenyon in the head with a shotgun as close range. “As the weeks went by he had become familiar with life on Courthouse Square, its habitues and their habits. The cats, for example: the two thin gray toms who appeared with every twilight and prowled the Square, stopping to examine the cars parked around its periphery – behavior puzzling to him until Mrs. Meier explained that the cats were hunting for dead birds caught in the vehicles’ engine grilles. Thereafter it pained him to watch their maneuvers: “Because most of my life I’ve done what they are doing. The equivalent.” In this piece, Perry is watching stray cats feeding off dead birds from his jail cell. He responds by stating that he can relate to these cats because he too has lived off scraps his entire life. From being denied an education and abused in his orphanage, Perry suffered just as much as these unfortunate cats, who have no choice but to dine on deceased birds that were caught in the engine grilles. Knowing he is stuck in his jail cell, Perry empathizes with these desperate creatures. Perry’s sufferings and pain were always a result of the lack of nurture and support from the people in his life. While Smith had only a grade-school education, he maintained a strong interest in art, literature and music. His rough past regarding his family and abusive childhood led him to be somewhat distant from people.

Overall, it is clear that Capote creates roles for each of the criminals in terms of the conflict nature vs. nurture. Perry serves as the example of a non-nurturing childhood creating a person capable of murder. Dick serves an example of the opposite, representing a person’s nature to kill. Capote uses this conflict of nature and nurture to show the complexity of the criminals, and what motivates them. 

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