While everyone might have put their costumes away this year, there are still many layers left on for the characters we play everyday. All the little pieces of one’s personal puzzle are made up of the signifiers tied to what we do, how we look, and how we behave. They are the makeup of our identities, who we are and who we want to be. But the one signifier we can’t change, the one that we can never seem to escape is where we are from. We assume so much based on the answer to that one question; it signals a certain set of values, a certain kind of upbringing, and a certain socioeconomic starting point.
So what happens to our sense of self when that town you are from suffers certain tragedy? When instead of defining a sense of place, the name of that town alone conjures evil, loss, or societal betrayal? It can happen in an instant. Think Parkland, Aurora, or Columbine. Or it can linger and grow into a mythology more tragic than the dark event itself. Think Sheppton, New Hope, or Holcomb. So what happens when where we are from doesn’t raise eyebrows because of any kind of envy, like for instance, being from Hawaii, but rather, a kind of morbid curiosity, like being from Waco?
In her new piece, Kara McGinley looks deeply into ideas around identity after a sudden change in the one social signifier we thought was set in stone. “We are taught to have pride in where we come from, but what happens to our hometown reputations post tragedy? Post finding out that the farm you drive by everyday was actually more of a secret graveyard? What happens if your home, a large part of your identity, is now the thing you don’t want people to know about you? In places where everyone knows everyone and mayhem may strike in a matter of minutes, communities can suddenly become defined by that one story alone.”
The American dream has to constantly be retold in the age of 20 part murder docuseries and irresponsible gun ownership because the mythologies we have learned about small towns themselves are fictional and more often than not, tragic. It has fed the narrative of our new civil war, that what is urban is dark, isolating, anonymous, immoral, and dangerous, while the fantasy of the small town remains connected, quiet, god fearing and leave your doors unlocked level safe. We as a society still, even if subconsciously, think of Wall Street as scary, and Main Street as safe.
“Small towns in America are usually painted in pop culture as idyllic. They’re illustrated as somehow utopian, with the promise of a life far away from the crime of the city. They represent places where American kids can grow up with good schools and safe neighborhoods. Places where they have room to run and play outside until way past dark. In reality, this is a no truer portrayal of American life than showing big cities as danger zones infested with masked men lurking around every other corner. “ Read Living In Infamy
These half truths have continually been fed by our shared mythologies, like Clark Kent having to leave Kansas behind and head to Metropolis just to find the bad guys, when, according to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Kansas was surely in need of a superhero too. Funny enough, those of us who spend time in large cities can feel even more of a sense of community and just as easily have each other's backs as in any small town. Our biggest, scariest cities now declare themselves “sanctuaries” for those fleeing true evil, and small towns are trying to redefine themselves everyday as they struggle with all of life’s tragedies: economic and cultural stagnation, as well as an inability to grow generationally without the destructive onset of gentrification.
In the end, where we are from is truly inescapable, and with so many towns across the country joining the tragic club of infamy, we experience that moment of awkward dread and morbid curiosity more and more often. So maybe it’s good practice considering that together we are facing a future where just being American itself invokes those same feelings, and can illicit that level of shame. Our society is heavily armed and in a deep state of denial. These tragedies are adding up, and a lack of political will points to our own national identity crisis. We were the dreamers and we lived in a land where anything was possible, pledging our allegiance and feeling quite sure of who we were. So what does it mean now to be from America? O’er the ramparts we watched.
Is there any story more starkly representative of identity and the deep and enduring split between rural and urban living than the voyeuristic, early-wave true crime of Truman Capote’s search for the truth during his writing of In Cold Blood? The consummate high society city boy, with upbringings in New Orleans, New York, and Greenwich, Connecticut, Capote wrote about the Ladies Who Lunch and then took a sharp left turn into the Men Who Murder.
It is difficult not be both fascinated as Capote, by the events that unfolded in In Cold Blood, and by Capote’s own obsession, first with the story and then with the men themselves. The legacy of his romantic affection for Perry Smith often overshadows the truth and many believe the book to have been, if not entirely fictionalized, far from a journalistic portrayal of what led two wandering criminals to commit a quadruple homicide on a remote estate in the middle of Kansas.
The Clutter home, located in the rural farming community of Holcomb, Kansas, with a population of just over 2,100 residents as of 2016, is as much a character in the story as each of the Clutter family members and the two murderers. According to lore, it was Nelle Harper Lee, close friend of Capote and author of the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird, that helped Capote to win the trust of the locals throughout the course of his writing, for he was undoubtedly a man with New York City about him– and there was just cause for the people of Holcomb to mistrust strangers in 1959.
Capote would end up spending nearly four years in rural Kansas, supposedly committing hundreds of conversations with locals to memory, as he delved into what would become a characterizing event for the small town of Holcomb. As with many stories where bad things happen in otherwise undefined places, rumor, mystery, and exaggeration swelled around the Clutter family murder, largely due to Capote’s influence, involvement, and intimacy with the supposed killers.
Had Capote not noticed a small article in the paper, the story of the Clutter family murder would likely become a local legend, but certainly not one with which many Americans associate the origin of true crime or the stark isolation and hidden dangers of scenery so often portrayed as idyllic Americana. It is an association for which the town of Holcomb is not necessarily grateful to the big-city interloper.
Perhaps Capote would have borne some resentment for the story as well, as many believe his success and subsequent failure to write another book led him on a lifestyle path that would prove his downfall--eventually fatally.
In today’s age, separating the fact from the fiction is sometimes easier and sometimes more challenging. While forensics, accountability, and conflict of interest standards have undoubtedly been raised, the speed with which communication travels lends itself to misinformation and fearmongering. Certainly, we can list dozens of cities which have become infamous for reasons beyond their control in the last five years alone. In a world where families no longer remain stagnant, where farms rarely pass from generation to generation, perhaps the sense of identity tied to place is changing organically, or perhaps we are simply becoming more discerning about where we are from and where we are not.
Regardless, there is little to indicate as a whole that people will lose their fascination with the macabre, with the desolate or with the distantly dangerous. Undoubtedly, there are many reasons Capote was first drawn to an experience so far from his own, but that he stayed for years, entrenched himself in the community and wrote his lasting legacy about a world he would only truly see from the outside, speaks for itself. Surely, the cities were dangerous. But did you hear what happened in Holcomb?
written by Ruby Scalera