My AP English classes just finished reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a marvelous book about
the 1959 murder of four members of the Clutter family in
and I look forward to teaching it because Capote develops the story more like a
novel instead of a nonfiction account. We have fascinating discussions about
the two murderers and the nature vs. nurture debate and how it plays out in
this book. Since AP English Language mainly focuses on nonfiction, I always
assign In Cold Blood early in the semester
when students think the works we will read will be boring. In Cold Blood is an outstanding book that sucks in the reader and
makes him feel that he is right there when the murders take place, and that’s
Over the years I have encountered students who like the
book, but they are so afraid while they read it that they don’t want to sleep
alone or go outside after dark. One young man this semester awakened in the
middle of the night when he heard some noise in the den and ended up tackling
his mother who had come downstairs to check on something!
In a time when many books and movies are so graphic, it’s a
testament to Capote’s craft as a writer that he is able to create such a
haunting setting without being graphic. However, I often wonder what I should
do with students who really are afraid as they read.
Am I wrong to assign
the book when I know a handful of students will become spooked?
Through the years I have tried to accommodate students by
warning them when they will read scary parts for homework. If they are
extremely afraid, I even mark their books and tell them to skip pages that are
more graphic or disturbing. I rarely have to do this, but when I do, students always appreciate
it. Sometimes, however, I just feel guilty for making a few kids squirm. Yes, I
know that good literature is often unsettling, but I still feel guilty. In the
past I used to console students by telling them that the murder of a family by
strangers is such a rare event that they have a better chance of winning the
lottery and emphasized that it was much more common for family members to
murder other family members. “So, if you aren’t worried about someone in your
family killing you, you don’t need to be worried,” I often announced in a
I stopped making that statement last spring, however, when the
mother of one of my former students was killed by her ex-husband.
In the end, I know that In
Cold Blood works well with my students, and I shouldn’t worry so much about
one or two students who feel squeamish a few days during our reading, but I
Worrying about how students react to In Cold Blood always reminds me of a story I read a few years ago
in George Plimpton’s Truman Capote: In Which
Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent
Career (1997). Plimpton tells of a time when a
group of high school seniors. During class one day, one of the young men became
visibly upset, threw his book in the floor, and ran to the guidance office. It
seems that while reading the book “he had got to putting two and two
together” and ascertained that Dick Hickock was his father (194)! The boy’s
mother had remarried when he was a baby and changed the boy’s name. What a horrible experience for the young man.
I also worry about that teacher. I bet that was the last
time she taught In Cold Blood!
In the end, I guess we all do the best we can to put
excellent works of literature in the hands of our students and help them grapple
with the large themes of life
. . . even if they
have to sleep with the lights on!