In the book In Cold Blood, author Truman Capote chronicles the brutal murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas in the 1960s. The accused murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, are convicted and Perry admits that he actually committed the killings.
After he is imprisoned, Perry derives joy from a few things. One is his relationship with Mrs. Meir during the trial and the modicum of freedom that it affords him. That a relationship develops between the two seems evident by Mrs. Meier’s reaction to the verdict. She did not want to face him and tells the author:
That afternoon, after he heard the verdict and they brought him back up here—I shut myself in the kitchen to keep from having to see him. I sat by the kitchen window and watched the crowd leaving the courthouse.
Perry also derives pleasure from looking out the window and seeing some of the animals. He actually makes a squirrel his pet. Capote writes:
The topmost branches of a snow-laden elm brushed against the window of the ladies’ cell. Squirrels lived in the tree, and after weeks of tempting them with leftover breakfast scraps, Perry lured one off a branch onto the window sill and through the bars…He named it Red, and Red soon settled down, apparently content to share his friend’s captivity. Perry taught him several tricks.
While “all this helped to pass time, but still there were many long hours the prisoner had to lose.” Perry finds true joy, however, in his artwork. This appears to be consistent with earlier incarcerations. The author notes:
But it was at the table…where he sat when he sketched portraits of Red, drew flowers, and the face of Jesus, and the faces and torsos of imaginary women.
During his time on Death Row, he takes satisfaction in waging a hunger strike and educating himself about potential legal issues that might free him. For example, Perry:
consumed hours each day leafing through law books, compiling research that he hoped would help reverse his conviction. Also, in pursuit of the same cause he fired off a cannonade of letters to such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Kansas State Bar Association—letters attacking his trial as a “travesty of due process,” and urging the recipients to aid him in his quest for a new trial.
Perhaps with similar hopes, he launches a hunger strike. Capote notes that “over the next nine weeks his weight fell from 168 to 115 pounds.” This got the attention of the prison authorities. “The warden...on several occasions had visited the hospital and tried to persuade the prisoner to cease his fast.” Dick ascribes the hunger strike to Perry’s goal of attaining a revised insanity plea.
Whether the hunger strike, commitment to learning the law and campaign to reach out to legal authorities were devices to get himself out of prison, throughout it all he nevertheless continues to produce art, which apparently brought him true pleasure. Capote says:
He looked at his fingers, which were stained with ink and paint, for he’d spent his final three years on Death Row painting self-portraits and pictures of children, usually the children of inmates who supplied him with photographs of their seldom-seen progeny.