Book Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

A Look at Capital Punishment in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

“In school we only learn to recognize the words and to spell,” Truman Capote writes in his nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, “But the application of these words to real life is another thing that only life and living can give us.” Capote’s book explores the events leading up to and following the savage murders of four members of the Clutter family by ex-convicts Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. As we learn more about the murderers and the lives they led prior to committing this heinous crime, Capote presses some of the most profound questions about empathy and moral judgment. Specifically, he examines Smith and his tragic upbringing, finding it “possible to look at the man… without anger—with, rather, a measure of sympathy—for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage or another.”

Capote offers no easy answers to the difficult questions In Cold Blood raises. Rather, he lets his layers of exploration speak for itself, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions about the Clutter family, the town of Holcomb, and ultimately, Hickock and Smith. At the time of its publication fifty-five years ago, In Cold Blood was an instant success, mainly because nonfiction had previously never been presented in the form of a novel before, but Capote’s in-depth storytelling helped to pioneer the true crime genre of creative nonfiction. Through extensive research boasting 8,000 pages of notes, a series of personal interviews, and a cleverly interwoven story that includes three distinct narratives, Capote manages to fully present all sides in an eloquent, prose-like manner.

In Cold Blood presents a moving portrayal of the Clutter family and how there has never been “a word against them,” how they were the “least likely to be murdered.” This makes the violence of their death all the more disheartening. In Cold Blood is also a desolate depiction of Holcomb specifically after the murder of the Clutters. At the story’s start, the town was “like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks,” and “drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.” Following the Clutters’ deaths, though, the “congregation of neighbors and old friends had suddenly to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other.” In Cold Blood also exposes Hickock and Smith as not merely villains but also as people with pitiful lives, which eventually led them to make all of the wrong choices. But most importantly, In Cold Blood catapulted the debate of capital punishment to a national level due to Hickock and Smith’s convictions, which carried mandatory death sentences.

Though Capote was widely praised by most of the literary community at the time of the book’s publication, In Cold Blood received its fair share of criticism, with some questioning the narrative’s truthfulness. In particular, it was later revealed, through interviews with certain citizens of Holcomb, that some facts were changed to suit the story, certain scenes were added to embellish the narrative, and a few conversations were made-up for effect. For instance, lead investigator Alvin Dewey mentioned, after In Cold Blood’s publication, that he never went to visit the Clutters’ graves, which is a key scene towards the end of the book. Likewise, Josephine Meier, the undersheriff’s wife, also noted that she never became close to Smith, but Capote highlights their friendship, noting that Meier even held Smith’s hand on occasions when he cried in his cell.

At the time of its publication, the commercial success of the book pushed the public to not want to “discuss anything wrong with a moneymaker like that,” as noted by true crime writer Jack Olsen. As a result, while these discrepancies were noted at the time, no action was taken. In today’s creative nonfiction landscape, a book like In Cold Blood would have been fact-checked more thoroughly in order to preserve the integrity of the nonfiction genre, and it would have been done with greater ease as well, since we are living in a digital age.

Despite these drawbacks, Capote effectively reconstructs the murders through an objective portrayal of the characters. In particular, Capote portrays Hickock and Smith as merely human, and even the townspeople of Holcomb, who harbored feelings of contempt for the murderers, were “amazed to find them humanly shaped.” While a measure of sympathy is felt for Hickock and Smith due to their troubled childhood, it does not, in any way, change the fact that four innocent people were killed. Smith did not feel any remorse, stating that he didn’t “feel anything about it” despite knowing that the Clutters “had experienced prolonged terror,” that “they had suffered”. In fact, he felt “sorry for [himself]… but that’s all.”

This leaves readers with the burning question of whether empathy is “deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy” in the face of such violence. In Cold Blood left me pondering over this for weeks, and rather than arriving at a conclusion of any sort, I am only left with even more questions.

What are the right consequences for those who kill without an ounce of remorse? Will taking the lives of Hickock and Smith remedy the loss of the Clutters’ lives? If not capital punishment, then what is considered “justice” for the Clutter family?

I still do not have any concrete answers, and I do not think I ever will.

Capote uses In Cold Blood to thoroughly examine the death penalty, and though he never outwardly states it in the book, he is against it. However, the debate of capital punishment remains multifaceted because we will never be able to truly understand empathy and forgiveness, or the “application of these words to real life” without knowing how it feels to have our family cruelly ripped apart for no reason, by people who do not regret their actions. Capital punishment can be discussed indefinitely, but there are no right or wrong answers. “Only life and living can give us” the answer we are looking for.

Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

           In her second novel, Gillian Flynn explores 1980s rural America in the midst of the Satanic cult hysteria. In particular, Dark Places portrays the haunting yet unintended ramifications of immense poverty with a suspenseful and captivating narrative that highlights the class issues, marital abuse, and abandonment that ultimately destroyed one family.

            As the sole survivor of her family’s murder at the hands of her older brother, Libby Day is now a struggling adult who is unable to move on with her life due to the emotional trauma she suffered because of her mother, Patty Day, and sisters’ deaths. As a result of her tragic circumstances, Libby describes herself as unlovable, with a “grudging curve of the lips where a smile” should be:

           I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it.

           At first glance, she is characterized as an untrustworthy and selfish young woman who turns to exploiting her family’s death for money by attending a meeting at the “Kill Club,” which consists of a group of overly enthusiastic individuals obsessed with notorious crimes. More specifically, there is a group that believes Libby’s older brother, Ben Day, who was accused of murdering her mother and sisters, is innocent. Though she initially refuses to recall the horrific events of January 3, 1985, Libby is soon driven into revisiting the case in a desperate attempt to earn some more money in order to survive.

            One of the things that stands out the most in Dark Places is the different points of view and flashbacks that Flynn uses to lead the reader through the narrative. Typically, in fiction, authors tend to stick to just one point of view – whether that’s first-person point of view or third person limited point of view – but Dark Places is told through interchanging perspectives. The novel opens with Libby’s first-person account of her life in the present, but as the story progresses, the reader is also introduced to Patty and Ben’s perspectives through third person limited flashbacks, which detail crucial events that eventually lead to the haunting murders of the Day family.

            Through these flashbacks, the reader meets a string of other possible suspects, such as Runner Day – Libby’s deadbeat father, Krissi Cates – the girl who accused Ben of molesting her when she was ten, Diondra Wertzner – Ben’s high school girlfriend, and Trey Tampano – Diondra’s cousin. At the same time, Libby learns of the additional suspects and the events of the past, albeit a little later than the reader. Though the author risks giving the reader more knowledge than the narrator, Flynn maintained a skillful balance, and as such, she effectively amplified the suspense that drove the mystery forward, urging readers to continue turning the pages in a race to see who will uncover the true murderer first – the reader or Libby? 

            The abruptness of these shifting perspectives, as well as the time jumps from past to present should have been jarring, but Flynn makes it work for this particular novel, since she breaks these accounts up into very easy-to-follow chapters. Most importantly, these shifts in perspective and time contribute to the overall haunting portrayal of the Day family’s desperate circumstances. While Libby’s point of view adds to the overall suspense of the story by pushing readers to want to find out the true murderer, both Patty and Ben’s sides of the story portray the desolation and hopelessness that plagued their family as a result of their immense poverty.

             Aside from its less-traditional structure, another storytelling aspect that Flynn executes impressively in Dark Places is characterization, but most specifically, the juxtaposition of Libby and Krissi’s characters. Despite having only heard his voice on the night of the murders, Libby is inevitably steered by law enforcement officials to implicate and testify that she had seen her brother at the scene of the murders, since Ben was the easiest and most obvious suspect, fitting into the community’s preconceived Satanic cult hysteria narrative:

“I know this is hard for you, Libby, but if you say it, say it aloud, you will help your mom and sisters, and you will help yourself start to heal. Don’t bottle it up, Libby, don’t bottle up the truth. You can help us make sure Ben is punished for what he did to your family.”

           On that same note, Krissi was steered by psychologists to accuse Ben of sexual abuse, despite that not being the whole truth:

              “You seem like a smart, brave girl. I’m relying on you to tell me what happened. Oh, nothing happened? Gosh, I thought you were braver than that. I was really hoping you’d be brave enough to help me out on this.”

           The authorities’ preconceived notions about Ben’s character played a huge role into his wrongful accusation on both accounts, and Flynn uses both Libby and Krissi’s similarities and differences to highlight a haunting phenomenon that brings to light the shortcomings of the justice system, particularly in cases in which biases have already been formed prior to any evidence or testimonies.

           One of the drawbacks in Dark Places comes from Flynn’s excess details of carnage, or more specifically, animal sacrifice. These events add to the Satanic cult hysteria culture that surrounded rural American in the 1980s and highlighted its significance in the town’s and Ben’s backstory. However, rather than focusing too much on the “devil worship,” the story could have benefited from more internalization from Libby’s perspective, so that the readers can witness her growth throughout the events of the narrative. Flynn’s structure allowed for detailed flashbacks that painted a very vivid image of the murders, but at the same time, Libby’s arc, including the moment in which her character grows or changes, is severely undermined because the readers are distracted by the gruesome details of Ben’s past.

            Despite these slight shortcomings, Flynn still does a marvelous job in creating a believable world that is driven by suspense. Although all of the characters have many faults, Flynn’s storytelling makes the reader care about the fates of everyone, which helped to drive the story forward. In addition, through Dark Places, Flynn explores the many flaws of the justice system, particularly in an impoverished community driven by moral panic surrounding Satan worship. The culmination of all of these factors resulted in a chilling yet enjoyable story.

4 Ways to Save for Graduate School (Without Financial Aid or Loans)

It’s no secret that graduate school is very expensive, but at the same time, it’s one of the most valuable investments you will ever make.

To make this post completely transparent, I am actually going to share the exact cost of how much I’m paying for my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Chapman University, a university made up of an extraordinary blend of liberal arts, science, and professional programs in Orange, California. To give some context, Chapman University is a private school and is ranked in the top 15% of American colleges and universities. As such, the cost of attending a school like Chapman University is actually pretty high, especially when compared to public schools.

Here is a breakdown of the cost of attendance for the Creative Writing program at Chapman:

  • $1035 per unit of class
  • Each class is typically 3 units
  • To be a full-time student, you have to enroll in at least 3 classes (or 9 units)
  • To complete the program, you must complete 12 classes (or 36 units)

So the cost = $1035 x 36 = $37,260 for classes only.

The above does not include room and board, books, cost of living, transportation, medical insurance, etc., so I’ve budgeted around $45,000 for two years of graduate school. That’s almost $50,000, which is half of $100,000. If you’re like me, just hearing these numbers can make your eyes want to pop out of your head.

Although the cost of a graduate program can definitely play a factor in your decision to attend, don’t let it deter you! Aside from government granted aid options and loans, there are a lot of different ways to save and budget, so that the cost of attending school isn’t so daunting. Read on to see how I managed to pay for school without any financial aid or loans!

Start a Savings Account

Even prior to applying for graduate school or being accepted into a program, one of the first things I ever did after I finished my undergraduate studies was start a savings account. One of the benefits of having a savings is that it forces you to put a set amount of money into an untouchable account every month, so you regularly (and unconsciously) save for a rainy day. Another perk is the interest that you earn; remember – checking accounts don’t offer any interest!

I started my savings account in 2014, and I’ve been working full-time ever since then, until I eventually started my graduate studies in 2020. This means I had a full 6 years to actually save on a monthly basis, so by the time I actually decided to pursue my Masters of Fine Arts, I had a considerable amount of money saved up.

The amount of money that you want to put into your savings on a monthly basis is entirely up to you, but my suggestion is this – if you’re still relatively young without a lot of financial burdens, then I’d definitely recommend putting more money into your savings. You’ll only thank yourself in the long run!

Budget

The next topic I want to cover is budgeting! Whether you’re working, getting ready to attend school, or are already a graduate student, budgeting is actually a very important skill to have as an adult.

One of the easiest ways to control your monthly spending is to ask yourself the question of want versus need. It may be tempting to buy things that are on sale, especially if there’s a huge discount, but at the same time, if you don’t actually need this item, then it’s not a useful purchase.

For instance, while last season’s sneakers may be selling for a discounted price, you don’t necessarily need another pair, especially if you already have two other pairs of perfectly wearable sneakers at home. In the long run, this method will help you save a lot of money!

Another effective way to budget is to use the “cost per wear” or “cost per use” method. I use a very simple formula to assess whether a purchase is actually worth the price.

For example, there is a winter coat that is on sale for $150. While at a glance, this article of clothing may seem pricey, I like to evaluate the item’s worth based on how many times I’ll actually wear it, which in this case, is at least 10 times during the winter season. This means that I’m technically only paying $15 every time I wear it! That’s definitely a good purchase.

Limit Eating Out / Ordering In

Another easy way to save money is to limit eating out or ordering from delivery services such as Postmates, Uber Eats, DoorDash, etc.

When I was working, I occasionally went out for lunch or happy hour with my coworkers, but I tried to limit these outings to only once a week. Although a meal may only be $15, if I ate out every day, that would be $75 per week, $300 per month, and $3600 per year! If you looked at my previous calculation of my school costs, then that’s the cost of about 3.5 units of class! Although saving a little everyday may not seem like much, it’ll make such a huge difference in the long run.

The same thing can be said about ordering from Postmates or Uber Eats. While these services make ordering in so convenient, just be careful of doing it too often, since the costs can easily rack up. Even if there is free delivery, these delivery apps charge a service fee, and don’t forget that you also have to tip your driver. A meal that costs $10 can easily be rounded up to almost $20!

A helpful tip – one of the easiest ways to curb the urge to eat out is to bring your own lunch to work! It’s also a lot healthier too, since you have more control over what you eat!

Take Advantage of Discounts / Sales / Coupons

Another easy way to save money is to take advantage of discounts, sales, and coupons! If I don’t need something right away, I typically wait until there’s a sale, so I can get a better deal. Signing up for retailers’ email newsletters is a great way to stay in the loop and have first access to discounts or coupons!

Live at Home

And one of my last tips – live at home, if you’re still able to. I know that a lot of us dream of moving out right after college, but in actuality, it’s really hard to be able to live on your own as a twenty-one- or twenty-two-year-old, especially in cities like Los Angeles or New York City, where the cost of living is super high.

In LA, the cost of a studio in a safer neighborhood can range anywhere from $1800 – $2500 per month (depending on how close you are to the heart of the city), and this doesn’t even include utilities, such as gas, water, electricity, phone, internet, etc.

An average starting salary for a college graduate is around $15 per hour, so in one day you’ll earn $120, in one week you’ll earn $600, and in one month you’ll earn $2400. That’s barely enough to cover just rent, and you didn’t even factor in all of the utilities, and we haven’t even gotten around to the topic of groceries.

I know not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to move back in with their parents, but if the opportunity arises, don’t hesitate to take your parents up on their offer! Although it may suck to move back into your childhood bedroom and back to your hometown, there’s nothing wrong with having a little bit of support before your career takes off. Paying your parents for groceries or for household items cost significantly less than living on your own, and I’m so thankful to my parents for their generosity.

And that wraps up the methods that have helped me save money for graduate school. I understand that not all of these methods may be accessible to you, but I do hope that they have given you some insight into how to budget and save, especially if you’re looking into pursuing graduate school.

3 Reasons Why You Should Pursue a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing

When I first started applying for a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) program for Creative Writing, I looked at a lot of different blogs and websites for more information, but unfortunately, what I was able to find was a bit dated, and therefore, wasn’t too helpful.

Nevertheless, I was still able to apply to four of my dream schools and was accepted to two prestigious programs. It’s been a year since I’ve submitted my applications, and now that I’ve been in an MFA program for one semester, I wanted to provide some guidance for those of you who are wondering if you should pursue a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.

1. Opportunities for a Multitude of Career Paths

Contrary to popular belief, majoring in Creative Writing and English opens up doors to a wide variety of different career paths. No matter what profession you’re in, being a good communicator is always an asset, and this is especially apparent in industries such as marketing, advertising, sales, copywriting, social media, etc., where being an effective writer is a highly sought-after skill. The biggest plus – these skills are easily transferrable, so you can definitely apply your expertise in a variety of different industries!

2. It Gives You the Chance to Work with and Meet Other Great Writers

One of the main reasons why I wanted to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts was so I would have the chance to meet other great writers. Growing up as a first generation Asian American, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to meet other writers or even likeminded individuals with similar interests in reading or writing. Being a part of an MFA program has allowed me to not only meet other great writers, it has also given me the chance to work them, so that I could further improve my craft.

As I continue pursing my degree, I want to take advantage of the positive environment that I’m in, in order to connect and bond with the members of my cohort, as well as my professors. Their support and encouragement are some of the most valuable takeaways from the program, and it’s a great reason to pursue an MFA, especially if you’re looking to build lasting connections in the writing industry.

3. Because You Want To!

And most importantly, the best reason to get an MFA is because you want to!

I first graduated with a Bachelors of Arts in Business and a minor in English in 2014. While I loved creative writing, it was a field I was too afraid to pursue at first, due to all of the negativity surrounding a life as a “starving artist.” As a result, I started a career in corporate marketing, and while I exceled in it, I could never help thinking about the “what-ifs,” if I had indeed pursued a writing career instead.

In 2020, my mindset really changed though. If this past year has taught me anything, it’s that life is unpredictable. I used to live for the future, but I’ve realized that there is no time like the present, especially when it comes to pursuing things that we are passionate about because there is nothing more fulfilling.

Grad Student Diaries // A Vlog // Last Days of 2020 & Saying Hello to 2021

Hi everyone! Hope you had a great New Years! I’m back with another vlog for my “Grad Student Diaries” series. The second week of winter break just passed, and it was also the last week of 2020. This year has definitely been a rollercoaster. Hopefully, 2021 will be better.

What did you all do for New Years?

Grad Student Diaries (New Vlog Series) | First Week of Winter Break, Christmas Light Viewing

Hi everyone! 🎄☃️🌟 I know it’s been awhile since my last video, but I’m finally back! It’s officially winter break, so I thought I’d share what I did during my first week off! Don’t forget to like and subscribe!

I’ve also been wanting to start a new vlog series on my channel, titled “Grad Student Diaries,” so I can share my life as a grad student with all of you! I’m pretty new to vlogging still, but I’m pretty excited to challenge myself! Let me know what other kinds of content you’d like to see in my vlogs! I’m thinking of sharing my whole application process for grad school, as well as some of my tips for studying / staying productive!

Hope you all had a Merry Christmas, and wishing you all a very Happy New Years as well!

Introduction: Elizabeth N. Tran

Elizabeth N. Tran is a writer and content creator. She is pursuing her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Chapman University and previously earned her Bachelor of Arts in Business from UC Irvine.

She is currently working on a collection of short stories and poetry, developing a young adult novel, and writing a creative nonfiction story exploring the Asian American identity. Her poem, “Cooking Dinner,” has been published in Calliope Art & Literary Magazine.

Elizabeth is also a Staff Writer at 60 Seconds Magazine, an online publication that shares digital content and blog posts with a young adult audience across the United States. She develops weekly blog posts for the online publication, where her articles have been published in the Fashion/Beauty and Lifestyle tabs of the magazine.

On top of writing for 60 Seconds Magazine, Elizabeth is also a freelance writer and photographer, offering blogging, social media writing, copywriting, proofreading, and photography services, most notably in the lifestyle, fashion, and beauty sectors.