Reformative Literature: To What End?


by Jenni Baker 

In his recent post, Lawrence Jablecki discussed the conflict between retribution and redemption in criminal sentencing. After recently reading Truman Capote’s nonfiction account of the 1959 Clutter family murders, In Cold Blood, I suggest that we have a similar choice to make in our selection of literature for Changing Lives Through Literature sessions.

In CLTL programs, we stress that everyone has a story. Murderer Perry Smith’s true story—woven on Capote’s sometimes-subjective loom—is as relevant to our discussions as the fictional characters we bring to the table each session (Richard Hickock’s story is also relevant, but I focus on Smith here). As I followed the story of Smith from early childhood to his death on the gallows, I found myself wondering, How important are redemptive or retributive endings in the lives of the literary characters about whom we ask criminal offenders to read?


Perry Smith’s life before the murders was not all that different from the criminal offenders who participate in our program. Smith lacked suitable parental figures—his mother suffered from alcoholism and his father was transient and emotionally needy.  Abuse, too, seems to have been a constant in Smith’s early life; in addition to bouts of domestic abuse between his parents, Smith himself suffered physical and verbal abuse in the orphanages and detention centers he frequented as a child.

His trouble continued into his adult life. Among other tribulations, a motorcycle accident at the age of 22 left him both physically and psychologically maimed, two of his three siblings committed suicide, and a series of crimes led Smith to serve time in the Kansas State Penitentiary.

Though Perry Smith confesses to the Clutter murders, his account reveals that he was not the calculating mastermind of the plot, but a less-willing participant who became caught up in the momentum of Hickock’s scheme. Early in his confession, he states, “I wanted the money as much as he did…but I hoped we could do it without violence.” He tries to back out numerous times and persuade Hickock not to go through with the murders. Even when caught up in the killings, he is sympathetic to the victims, preventing Hickock from raping Nancy Clutter and placing a mattress box under Herb Clutter so he did not have to lie on the cold basement floor.

perrysmithpictureBy the time Smith ascends the gallows at the conclusion of the book, readers know his story well—they feel sympathy for his plight and may identify with many of his struggles. Yet this compassion and, perhaps, hope for Perry’s redemption jars loudly against the need to seek retribution for the Clutters’ death. Capote acknowledges this conflict when he says of detective Alvin Dewey:

He found it possible to look at the man beside him 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 and then another. Dewey’s sympathy, however, was not deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy. He hoped to see Perry and his partner hanged—hanged back to back. (246)

True to Dewey’s (and, indeed, much of America’s) hope, Perry Smith was executed by hanging on April 14, 1965 at the age of 36. His story of a troubled life could offer no second chances or opportunities for redemption in the face of murder.

It is this conclusion to Smith and Hickock’s lives and Capote’s book that led me to initially question its appropriateness for a CLTL group. Individuals in the literature we traditionally use face adversity similar to Smith’s, but do not commit such grave mistakes and are not punished with similar severity.  More often than not, the characters triumph over their struggles, learn lessons, or, at a minimum, demonstrate courage and strength by persevering through troubled times.

These types of characters and stories deserve a rightful place at the CLTL table—if we want to encourage people to change their lives and overcome adversity, one of the easiest ways to do so is by providing positive role models with whom they can identify. At the same time, we should remember the value of texts like Capote’s In Cold Blood, in which the main character(s) must face significant retribution for his or her mistakes or crimes. 

It is important for offenders to recognize the gamut of consequences—both positive and negative—that they can incur for the life choices they make once exiting the program. While some may see this approach as modeling failure instead of success, individuals who are encouraged to relate to a character whose poor choices lead to irreversible endings (of life imprisonment or death, for example) may be inspired to reverse their own downhill path before they meet a similar fate. 

Though stories like Smith’s may not end with second chances, they can inspire others to make better choices before their own chances of redemption run out.


Jenni Baker is a second-year graduate student in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She is the editor of Changing Lives, Changing Minds and participates in the New Bedford/Fall River chapter of Changing Lives Through Literature.



8 thoughts on “Reformative Literature: To What End?

  1. Thanks, Jenni. Your writing is very clear and compelling, especially as you suggest how to frame this book for conversations about retribution and redemption. Knowing where and how our texts “fit” into a larger teaching goal or among other readings is the key! I look forward to reading more.

  2. Excellent post, Jenni. I think every story has its value, and in that sense every story is worth our consideration and discussion. How about CRIME AND PUNISHMENT?

  3. IN COLD BLOOD may be a good vehicle for discussing the death penalty. Does it serve any purpose? This can lead to discussion of the whole punitive theory of justice, punishment as virtue in its own right, whether or not it has any utilitarian value. Even if most people in CTLT are victims of the American criminal justice system, most of them grew up in society that seems to value punishment for its own sake and they may have internalized the very culture which marginalized them.

  4. in Cold Blood can teach us all valuable lessons. Even if we suffer the insufferable, we can learn from the mistakes Perry and Richard made. Jenni, your post brings to mind Dreiser’s An American Dream. Though perhaps too long for CLTL discussions, It too suggests object lessons we learn-mistakes we can avoid- from reading about lost lives..

  5. Another interesting topic that this post suggests is the use of non-fiction over fiction. One CLTL juvenille program uses Ishmael Beah’s Long Way Gone:Memoirs of a Boy Soldier as a non-fiction supplement for the themese they wish to address, while Bob brings up Dickens’ classic Crime and Punishment. I wonder if anyone here wishes to share their thoughts on the effectiveness of fiction over non-fiction (or vice versa) in a CLTL classroom. I understand that every class is different and that course materials change organically based on that, but would anyone like to share their thoughts?

  6. Dostoevsky, not Dickens, wrote Crime and Punishment — but that really doesn’t matter here. My response to using a book like In Cold Blood in a CLTL class room is — why give our students more of a world they already know. I think they need a change of scene. I take delight, and my women students do too, in reading a book like Bread Givers (by Anzia Yezeirsky), a story of self-determination which takes place on New York’s Lower East Side in the 20’s. The book is full of yiddish words ( I give them a glossary) and a jewish immigrant culture that is new to them. But the theme of struggle, the rising and falling waves of hope and despair, these they know well. And I think they wake up to them in a different way because the outward lives of the characters in the book — the language, the food, the customs — are so different from their own.

  7. Im a student at Tupelo High school and we are currently reading the book In Cold Blood. This horrible thing that Perry and Dick did to an innocent family like the Clutters is something to really look into. These people in this small town trusted everyone around them. They thought they were safe and they thought they had no worries. What these two men did was something that changed everything. This one case changed the views on how people thing of one another. A crime so serious has opened everyone’s eyes. I personally think that the punishment that Perry Smith and Dick Hickock got was appropriate. These two repulsive, sick-minded men took the lives of an innocent family who did nothing wrong! These men killed this family for no apparent reason at all and deserved the punishment they got! Looking at the pictures of Smith and Hickock’s mugshots, of the Clutter family’s home and themselves and reading the book In Cold War takes you back to the time of the crime. Even though us today never knew the Clutter family, we have much respect and sympathy for them. Such tragedy.

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