Truth, Better Than Fiction
edited: Saturday, February 23, 2002
By Esther G Spurrill
Posted: Saturday, February 23, 2002
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How "In Cold Fact" by Phillip K. Tompkins changed my opinion of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
I have read many novels that were based on true stories, most in a genre known as "Biblical fiction," which is fiction based on Bible stories. However, these novels did not claim complete accuracy "without even 'minor distortions'"(Tompkins 44); the authors clearly stated that they merely based their works upon the truth, while openly declaring the addition of fictional segments. Truman Capote's novel, In Cold Blood, is different: he claims "'every word of it [is] true from beginning to end'"(44). Nevertheless, Phillip Tompkins proves that much of it is not true . The revelations of Capote's inaccuracies in Tompkins' article entitled "In Cold Fact" bothered me because of Capote's claim to total truthfulness.
The inconsistency that bothered me the most was Capote's characterization of Perry Smith. In In Cold Blood, Perry is articulate and intelligent. To illustrate this, while on Death Row, another prisoner, Lowell Lee Andrews, an honours student at the University of Kansas and a convicted killer, makes an enemy of Perry:
Andrews' educated accent and the formal quality of his college-trained intelligence were anathema to Perry, who though he had not gone beyond third grade, imagined himself more learned than most of his acquaintances, and enjoyed correcting them, especially their grammar and pronunciation. But here suddenly was someone-"just a kid!"-constantly correcting him. (Capote 317)
In "In Cold Fact," Tompkins paints a very different picture of Perry Smith. Quoting from a transcription of Perry's confession, Tompkins writes, in part: "I think we was debating who was going to do what
'Well,' I says, 'I'll do it'"(52). From this, it is clear that Perry was not the grammar genius Capote seems to want us to believe he was. Although he "could hardly utter a grammatical sentence while dictating his confession"(Tompkins 56), Capote tries to tell us that Perry was a misunderstood, tortured poet.
Before I read "In Cold Fact," I felt sorry for Perry; Capote's portrayal of him made me wish someone had helped him before it was too late. After reading Tompkins' article, I was confused. I did not know how to feel. I had to keep reminding myself that Perry was real person, that he lived, and that he died-otherwise, I would might have hated him. I would have had more sympathy for Perry if Capote had portrayed him as he really was, uneducated yet human. Therefore, I feel that Capote made an error in judgment when he falsified the facts about Perry.
One scene in In Cold Blood that especially disturbed me was the sale of Nancy Clutter's horse, Babe. I love horses and cannot stand to see them misused; therefore, when the "Mennonite farmer" who "pa[ys] seventy-five dollars" for her, "says he might use her for plowing"(Capote 271), I was saddened. Babe deserved to be retired and given a life of leisure. However, Tompkins informs me that this scene was a total fabrication. The "father of the postmaster" bought Babe, paid "$182.50" for her, and kept her as a brood mare (45). This fate is much more palatable to me, and it makes me wonder why Capote changed Babe's story to such a fatalistic tale. In this case, I prefer the truth.
I think Capote made a mistake when he distorted the story of Babe. Perhaps he wanted the reader to be disappointed and sad over the horse's fate, but I was more angry than sad. I was even angrier when I found out that Babe had a happy end that Capote had chosen to hide from us. There are so few happy endings in real life, that to replace this one with such a miserable tale seems insane to me.
I do not really care about some things that Capote fabricated; for example, the last scene in the book, the meeting in the cemetery between the detective Dewey and Nancy's best friend Sue Kidwell. Such things add little to the story and take nothing from the facts: a family was murdered for little or no reason. Knowing that the Clutters were real people who lived and died forces me to wonder whether any of the inconsistencies are important, however much they bothered me.
I would have had no problems with this book if Capote had not claimed that he never strayed from the truth. Novels based on true stories are not lies, even when much of them is fiction. However, this novel is not "based on" a true story, it claims to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and it is not. Capote invented details, passages, and scenes while continuing to insist that he invented nothing. I do not have a problem with the book, I have a problem with the fact that the author lied; that makes me angry. Furthermore, when the truth is better than the fiction that replaces it, I have to wonder why anyone would change it.
Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 1965.
Tompkins, Phillip K. "In Cold Fact." Esquire June 1966: 125, 127, 166-171.