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Is mental illness a motif in In Cold Blood?

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Mental illness is a motif In Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

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Mental illness is a motif In Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Capote paints a chilling picture of the killers, particularly Perry. The way Capote describes him makes it seem possible that Perry was a psychopath. According to Psychology Today:

Psychopathy is characterized by the absence of empathy and the blunting of other affective states. Callousness, detachment, and a lack of empathy enable psychopaths to be highly manipulative ... Psychopaths can appear normal, even charming. Underneath, they lack any semblance of conscience. Their antisocial nature inclines them often (but by no means always) to criminality.

In the book, Perry talks about the moment that he killed Mr. Clutter. It is chilling, showing his utter lack of empathy for the man he was about to murder. Perry says,

I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.

That twist at the end of Perry’s quote is intended to provide the reader some insight into Perry’s mind. Another story that Perry tells also conveys the same sense that he lacks empathy. Perry says that one time his father “snatched a biscuit” out of his hand and told him that he ate too much. Perry's father called him “a greedy, selfish bastard” and told him to get out of the house. In response, Perry said,

My hands got hold of his throat. My hands—but I couldn’t control them. They wanted to choke him to death.

Perhaps, Perry was trying to convey that he was mentally ill as a possible defense for his actions. In fact, there is a lot of discussion in the book about whether the accused murderers were competent to stand trial. The special assistant prosecuting the case expected the defense to claim that the defendants were temporarily insane as its strategy.

He feared that the defense would put “a 'pack of head-healers' sympathetic to the defendants” on the witness stand. The prosecutor believed that in regard to sanity, Kansas law dictates that if the accused knew the nature of their act and knew it was wrong, then they were mentally competent to stand trial and responsible for their actions.

Not surprisingly, therefore, there is also a lot of discussion in the book about "sanity hearings." The defense needed to show that the defendants were not “mentally competent and responsible" for their actions. The defense argued a motion "urging comprehensive psychiatric examinations for the accused" and requested that the court grant custody of the prisoners to "the state hospital in Larned, Kansas, a mental institution with maximum-security facilities." The defense argued that the hospital could ascertain whether either or both were “insane" and "unable to comprehend their position and aid in their defense.”

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