Images of Power: A Child’s Search for Freedom and Identity

Rose Kohinke

Abstract: In The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan chronicles one child’s search for freedom and identity in the Scottish foster system. On the outside, Anais Hendricks presents a harsh image to the court and her social workers. She has crashed buses into walls and has vandalized police cars. She spends her clothing money on illicit drugs and does not believe that she will live to see her sixteenth birthday. After allegedly attacking a police officer, she is sent to the Panopticon, a fictional institution for chronic young offenders. The goal of this confinement is to either render the offenders “normal” or to remove them to a regular jail. However, the very institution that is supposed to help Anais propels her delinquency and drug use, which are adaptations that temporarily allow her to cope with the effects of an unstable childhood and the system’s surveillance. As she interacts with the other inmates, the reader sees a different side of Anais: she is gentle and kind and does not believe in unmatched fights or cruelty. Above all, she dreams of living in Paris. After a near apocalyptic ending, Anais manages to escape to Paris, where she will shed her destructive behaviors and reach her potential. By contrasting her struggles at the Panopticon with the freedom that she gains after escaping, Fagan’s novel illustrates the downfalls of the Scottish foster system. To diminish the psychological and physical harm associated with these adaptations, the Scottish Government will need to reform the current foster system. Children like Anais need to be provided with a stable environment; they need access to the resources and the support to develop into healthy and powerful citizens.

Rose Kohinke is a 2014 graduate of Roanoke College. She is currently studying at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy.

Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon opens with a riddle: Did Anais Hendricks attack a cop and place her in a coma? With her school uniform covered in blood and with no memory of the last four days after using the drug ketamine, she certainly seems guilty. However, as the novel continues, readers find that the answer is not so simple. Arriving at the Panopticon, an institution for chronic young offenders in Scotland, Anais falls directly into the hands of what she calls the “experiment.” The experiment consists of social workers and legal officers – few of whom seem to care if Anais is innocent or guilty, as her track record is filled with vandalism and violence and she has previously defied all of their attempts at reformation and treatment. Much later, even after evidence appears that clears her of suspicion, they continue to search for an opportunity to lock her in a “proper” jail. In response to her confinement, Anais bonds with the other residents and fiercely struggles against the system that controls her. Drugs and delinquency temporarily decrease her feelings of victimization, yet harm her health and well-being. What she truly wants is freedom. She dreams of life in Paris; of having a stable home and a loving family. Building from Foucault’s concept of panopticism and strain theory, I will discuss how Fagan’s novel portrays the downfalls of the Scottish foster system, an institution that seems to generate more problems than it solves. By explaining how Anais is able to gain an identity that is free from drugs and crime after escaping the Panopticon’s surveillance, I will discuss Fagan’s implications about what role the Scottish Government should play in providing better stability, resources, and support to improve the long-term outcomes of foster care.

Foster care has emerged in the last century in response to abuse and neglect. To this extent, social agencies are granted the power – with due process of law – to intervene when a child is not being raised properly. The goal is to provide care that can replace parental care. Though no one disputes the need for this system, there is little evidence to support it as a good solution.(1) Important decisions regarding a child’s welfare are placed into the hands of complete strangers – courts, social welfare agencies, relatives, or foster families, any one of whom can receive custody. These parties do not always understand what is best for a child, and the outcomes, or long-term effects, of foster care are often poor.(2) Thomas McDonald discusses these issues in a review of foster care research published by the Institute for Research and Poverty.(3) Based on twenty-seven studies that were conducted between 1960 and 1990, lower-than-average education levels in adults raised in the foster system correspond with lower socioeconomic status and employment.(4) Higher risks of teen pregnancy and social isolation were identified. Well-being may suffer: after reaching adulthood, former foster children reported poorer physical and mental health. Less personal satisfaction and self-esteem were also recorded.(5) Those who were removed from foster care fared better than those who remained in group homes and institutions. Such a discrepancy can be explained by the complete upheaval in the children’s lives when removed from their families. If they are not provided with nurturing and stable placements, they are consequently viewed as helpless and demanding, and the risk of negative long-term outcomes increases.(6)

Based on these outcomes, it can be argued that, rather than alleviating the burden created by poor family situations, foster care contributes to it. Within this context, Fagan’s novel shows that the system continues to create more problems than it solves in the twenty-first century; that foster children lack the resources and stability necessary to become healthy adults. Fifteen-year-old Anais Hendricks illustrates this failure within the Scottish foster system. “I’m a bit unconvinced by reality,” states Anais. “It’s fundamentally lacking in something.”(7) Moved twenty-four times during the first seven years of her life, she has lived in twenty-seven more placements in the last four years. She does not know her real parents, and her adopted mother, Teresa, was murdered. She is viewed by the Scottish Government as a quintessential delinquent foster child. However, it can be argued that this label does not reflect who she truly is; instead, the term “delinquent” may mirror the world around her. With such an unstable childhood, and without the hope of a home placement, how can she be blamed for being helpless and demanding – or violent and disruptive?(7) Her helplessness is caused by situations outside of her control; that is, the complete upheaval in her life each time she enters a new placement, in addition to the system’s inability to understand her. Though she is inherently gentle and kind, she cultivates an identity that is both violent and destructive. Delinquency appears to provide an internal power that matches the devastating external power exerted by poor family situations and the limitations of the foster system. What her life is lacking is stability. Its absence perpetuates her behavioral, emotional, and social adaptations. These adaptations temporarily decrease her feelings of victimization, yet increase the risk for negative long-term outcomes.

The Panopticon, to which she is sent after allegedly attacking a police officer, reinforces Anais’s guarded view of reality. The eponymous institution is based on Jeremy Bentham’s late 18th century prison design, in which a series of cells are centered around a surveillance watchtower – intended to turn criminals into citizens using constant observation.(8) Such a form of power, or panopticism, lacks chains and bars. However, it relies on being “visible and unverifiable”(9) – visible in that the imposing watchtower is constantly before the prisoners’ eyes, and unverifiable in that they will never know if they are being watched at any given moment, while knowing that they could be so.(10)

Though no true Panopticon prison has ever been built, its design and principles still stand. Foucault presents this architectural figure as a metaphor for the propensity of disciplinary societies to measure, supervise, and normalize the abnormal. The goal of panopticism is to adjust behavior, and in theory, its applications are polyvalent.(11) As Foucault goes on to say, by carefully distributing individuals in a “panoptic schema,”(12) the state of surveillance intensifies the power of the individual or group who seeks to affect another’s actions. Constant visibility is thought to guarantee its functionality, serving to treat patients, supervise children, confine the insane, and reform prisoners.(13)

At the Panopticon in Fagan’s novel, Anais either encounters or embodies all of these labels: patient, child, criminal, and insane. Most of the inmates are sent here after the foster system fails them. They lack stable home environments and families with whom they can identify. They have been classified by the legal system as being “abnormal” so that they can be observed and controlled.(14) The goal of their confinement is to become “normal.” Through their stories, Fagan’s novel shows that panopticism – in this case, the power used by the Scottish Government to reform, treat, and normalize the children – is ineffective. With security locks and a strict schedule, the social quarantine generates rebellion. Their behavior unadjusted by the state of surveillance, the children regularly defy authority, from stealing food to sharing drugs. They routinely escape the Panopticon’s confines to participate in vandalism and prostitution.

Many of the Panopticon’s workers, including Joan and Angus, appear to have good intentions. However, they are misguided. The children easily see through their strategies – such as talk of therapy and becoming “normal.” The children despise the labels that are constructed for them, such as “Cared-for Young People” and “Young Offenders in Holistic Rehabilitation.” (15) They particularly oppose the term “clients,” as they feel that clients “have the right to respond.” They generally do not feel that they have the right to file complaints regarding neglect, abuse, or social-work failures – doing so, they believe, would be in vain.

Though many receive psychiatric diagnoses and antipsychotics, they do not seem to be able to escape destructive behaviors such as drug abuse and self-injury. This represents the system’s misguided use of power: classifying the children as “abnormal” reinforces their identity confusion. They are constantly being measured, supervised, and regulated. The state of constant visibility disturbs their personal equilibrium. They are not allowed to flourish or make their own decisions. Rather than providing the foster children with what they truly need in order to become healthy and powerful, the Panopticon catalyzes delinquency. For example, loss of Anais’s biological and adopted mothers leaves her feeling that she has no identity. Instead of receiving stability and support, she is labelled and medicated – the system addresses the “symptoms” instead of “curing” her frustration. This further diminishes her personal power. Between antipsychotics and border line personality, she jokingly states that these are “better than no personality,”(17) and continues with the same destructive activities. While these activities temporarily reduce the emotional burden generated by her environment, they propel society’s condemnation. Though astute and intelligent, her record shows a continuous downward spiral – a combination of drugs, delinquency, and criminal circumstance.

Anais’s record classifies her as being one of the most hopeless cases at the Panopticon. She has defied all efforts made for her to become normal. The Panopticon’s watchtower, which “can see everything, whether you’re left, right, or in the corner”(18) represents the ever-watchful scrutiny of the Scottish social agencies that seem to be closing in on her. Forming what Anais refers to as the experiment, the legal system and social workers do not appear to care that she is innocent in the case against PC Craig, the police officer whom she is accused of attacking. The experiment places her under stricter observation than the other children; it is an exertion of power by a system set on weaving a “steel web.”(19) Michel Foucault, in his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison, helps us understand how criminality becomes the object of the Panopticon’s intervention: her status as a delinquent becomes more important than the alleged crime.(20) The Panopticon becomes her “total existence;”(21) it is a form of theater in which her life is thoroughly examined, just as the watchtower places her under a constant state of observation. The experiment’s motive is to find a reason to permanently remove her from society by locking her in a regular facility.

In as much it shows how Anais got to this hopeless position, it is clear that Fagan’s novel is not a statement of what is wrong with Anais. It is the system itself that needs to be changed. To this extent, The Panopticon is more than one child’s story. It represents foster kids everywhere – not inherently bad children, but the unintended victims of well-meaning yet unimaginative adults, social agencies, and the government. Children like Anais do not make the right choices by “middle-class” standards, but how could they? Adolescence itself is a period of stress and negative emotions. The greater the stress, the better the chances are for negative outcomes such as foster delinquency.(22) Rebellion is sparked by betrayal and identity confusion. The children ask: Who are my parents? Why can I not be with them? Removed from their homes, they are often caught by the legal system or taken away by social workers, many of whom dictate but do not listen to the children, as we see in Fagan’s novel. Delinquency becomes a protective shell: the children feel powerless.

Anais’s delinquency and negative emotions can be explained in terms of Cohen’s “Delinquent Subculture Theory.” All individuals seek to solve problems, which can arise from two sources: the situation in which one lives and the reference frame, which is defined as an individual’s beliefs.(23) By this theory, strain and maladjustment are created when those of a lower socio-economic status experience a “status problem,”(24) as Anais and her friends do when they do not live up to the standards expected by their social workers, the court, and police officers such as PC Craig. When unequipped with middle-class standards, which are commonly defined as good manners, studying hard, and nonaggressive behavior, the solution is to join together and form a “new standard of status.”(25) The new subculture reduces strain. While this identity conflicts with middle class standards, it resets their equilibrium by establishing a reference frame that incorporates the “kinds of conduct of which they are capable.”(26) As it solves feelings of inadequacy and fulfills needs for acceptance, delinquency becomes their personal power.

Characteristics of this subculture include group autonomy, hedonism, maliciousness, negativistic orientation, and versatility.(27) Group autonomy refers to lack of restraint: Anais participates in vandalism while valuing loyalty to her friends within the group, taking care to follow their unofficial rules. Hedonism refers to little thought for long-term goals – thus, many of the children appear to live in the “here and now.” Anais herself does not believe that she will live to see her sixteenth birthday. Maliciousness incorporates aggression and defiance of social taboos, while their negativistic orientation causes them to oppose the middle-class standards of larger society. Finally, versatility describes how they do not limit themselves in how they achieve status. Fighting, stealing, vandalism, and rape are all used as extreme measures to gain respect within the delinquent subculture shown in The Panopticon.(28) By achieving status in this subculture, any guilt associated with violating conventional standards is alleviated. It is an “escape from society” so as to relieve frustration.(29)

Agnew’s general strain theory (GST) further describes Anais’s situation: strain can result from a “failure to escape from aversive situations or stimuli.”(30) Panopticism, as represented by the surveillance watchtower, is a form of power that generates a large amount of strain. Though the DNA test clears Anais of suspicion in the case against PC Craig, the system continues to search for a reason to lock her in a real jail. She realizes that, as long as she subject to the system’s scrutiny, she will never be able to reach her positively valued goals, such as living in a home with a “huge window overlooking the garden,” rather than a bleach-cleaned unit where the bedroom doors are always open, and having new belongings that were not stolen, or “from the chore.”(31) She is exposed to negative stimuli, such as an incompetent social worker, hatred from the surrounding village, and harassment from her boyfriend, Jay. Combined, this harsh world and the perceived inability to reach her goals make Anais feel hopeless. It does not matter if she is innocent or guilty, and the “experiment” will always use her status as a delinquent to set her apart from society. As long as she remains at the Panopticon, she will be subject to surveillance. Within these confines, she will never have the freedom to become the person she wants to be.

Feeling threatened, Anais seeks to oppose these stimuli. Though she hates violence, aggression and vandalism become part of her identity that provides revenge against the system. Her powerful imagination and drugs are escapes – these are ways of coping emotionally by minimizing the negative outcomes of the strain.(32) Her mind can be a vibrant and remedial place, as with her visions of flying and mythical creatures. It can also be violent and destructive, especially when abused with drugs. Drugs may serve as a temporary escape from the strain, but can be as destructive as the court and foster systems. They are often more powerful than even the gentlest of people, including the pacifistic Anais. For example, after four days on ketamine, Anais states that she “could have massacred the mob and no remembered.”(33) It is during this time that she is accused of placing a police officer in a coma. She does not actually know if she attacked PC Craig; she arrives at the Panopticon with her school uniform covered in blood, but with no memory of how it got there. To the reader, the meaning of this reflection initially appears to be obvious: even though Anais hates unmatched fights and cruelty, drug use could have caused her to lose control of her mind, pushing her to brutally attack PC Craig.

Though she is later found to be innocent, the struggle with PC Craig is not an entirely matched fight. As Anais states, “PC Craig went tae war with me, not the other way around.”(34) Unable to see beyond the tough-as-nails image that Anais presents to the outside world, PC Craig is part of the system that controls Anais. Not understanding this foster child’s guarded reality, PC Craig embodies a destructive force of power, similar to the Panopticon’s watchtower. She is unable to effectively deal with Anais’s destructive behaviors and unknowingly catalyzes the very behavior that she condemns. As Anais’s personal power is undermined, she further views herself as a victim and fights the system’s “fire” with more “fire.” For example, she responds to PC Craig’s abuse by vandalizing police cars.

While a broken family situation places Anais into substitute care, the foster system creates additional strain that is powerful enough to generate behaviors such as vandalism and drugs. These further increase the risk for negative outcomes, such as a life of maladjustment and criminal behavior. Lack of family networks could contribute to this failure: better functioning corresponds with fewer movements.(35) In the absence of a permanent home or adopted parents, foster children will ideally maintain ties with their biological parents. Anais, of course, does not have this opportunity, as her mother abandoned her and her adopted mother was murdered. Her negative adaptations may reflect a system that maintains children in temporary situations. It is argued that estrangement occurs when a permanent home is not found, which creates adjustment problems.(36)

Many foster children face similar situations: 15-20% of these children are removed from their homes once their parents are deemed incapable of caring for them, owing to problems such as drug addiction or physical and mental illness. Their children may also have these same problems.(37) This cycle is shown through Isla, a sixteen-year-old in The Panopticon with twin children. Her story reflects the downfalls of the foster system at both ends of the spectrum. As a child, she has been separated from her parents due to situations beyond her control. As a parent, she wants the outcome that is dreamed of by the government social agencies: to live with and care for her children. Unfortunately, her dream proves impossible. Owing to physical and mental illness, she is unable to care for herself or her children and commits suicide. Unfortunately, stories like Isla’s are not uncommon. Children are often trapped rather than helped by intervention: they may leave long-term institutionalism only to end up in prostitution, prison, or dead. Anais’s case-worker, Angus, is the first to point this anomaly out to Anais. His dissertation states that children like her are “lifers” training for the “proper jail” – without hope of a family placement. (38)

Scotland has recently attempted to address these issues. In 2011, the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) released research regarding permanency and care for foster children. In response, the Scottish Government (SG) implemented plans to improve stability and permanence. The Foster Care Review was part of this plan. As described in a final report published in 2013, children and young people need high-quality care in a family setting. The policy promotes training for supervising social workers and provides preparatory courses for foster careers.(39) Both actions are conveyed as being essential in The Panopticon, which was published in 2012. Certainly, the happiest period of Anais’s life was when she was adopted by Teresa. “Mother Teresa” provided the permanent and nurturing placement recommended by the review. Her death was devastating to Anais, whose subsequent delinquencies may be promoted by lack of stability or hope of a long-term placement. Further, Helen, Anais’s social worker, is incapable of relating to Anais – perhaps a result of inadequate preparation.

At the conclusion of the novel, the children set fire to the Panopticon. It is a way to end their confinement and to rebel against the power of the watchtower. In the chaos that follows, Anais slips away. She has been planning her escape for some time, saving money and mapping out an escape route. She sets away to the place of her dreams: to Paris. Part of Anais’s personal power is that she dreams of life outside of the Panopticon. In a way, Paris is just that – a dream – yet for Anais it represents a new beginning and a stable placement that contains the qualities of a permanent home. Once Anais escapes the confines and surveillance of the current system, she is finally able to live as a strong and healthy citizen. The well-known negative outcomes of foster care, as described by the Institute of Research and Poverty’s 1990 review, therefore provide a context for The Panopticon, with the children’s stories representing all that is wrong with the system. However, the 2013 Foster Care Review provides hope. It outlines the positive outcomes, such as self-sufficiency, behavioral adjustment, and well-being, which can be reached if all children are provided with stability and the right skills to live in the “adult” world.

Anais’s transition to Paris is left to the reader’s imagination. It is obvious that she can overcome the trauma of her past, yet there are gaps, such as how she will overcome drug abuse and find a job. Similarly, there are gaps between the projected and actual outcomes of the Scottish foster system. If living in Paris is the “projected” outcome of the foster system, then Anais’s escape to Paris represents the outcomes of a foster child after the gap between the 1990 and 2013 reviews are filled. The government’s responsibility is to fill the gap. It must ensure children’s welfare through supportive services, financial assistance, and placements. Caregivers must be encouraged to address the complex issues facing foster children and families, such as behavioral, emotional, and social difficulties – while being stable, nurturing, and long-term. Preferably, these placements should last from infancy to adulthood. Foster care needs to provide permanent parents and community planning partnerships to allow the stable transition.(40)

In order for these measures to be successful, each child needs to be viewed as an individual, and labels such as “abnormal” need to be avoided. The failure of the foster and court systems in The Panopticon to look past Anais’s delinquent and drug-fueled façade causes them to focus only on removing her from society. They do not realize that, beneath this façade, there is a side of Anais that is gentle, kind, and hopeful. In its failure to recognize this side of Anais, the system does not realize that she is simply a fifteen-year-old searching for an identity. This search is complicated by being misunderstood by the very people who are supposed to help her. As Angus assures her, what is written in her files “doesnae make [her] bad… bored, irritable, angry–maybe. Not bad.”(41) Her identity may be shaky, which in fact does contribute to delinquency, but despite her many confused and splintered emotions, she is a deeply moral person. This provides a commendable foundation that propels her through a harsh world. The moral foundation assures her that she did not murder PC Craig, despite her drug-induced state. It compels her to fight for those who are less powerful, including animals and unmatched fights.

Such inner/outer dichotomy is represented by Tash, a resident at the Panopticon whom Anais favorably compares to Frida Kahlo. Like Kahlo’s painting of a deer pierced with arrows, the girls’ stories provide a dramatic image of wounds inflicted by circumstances beyond their control. In The Panopticon, the image covers an internal power and results from a desire to survive – by acting out against the unspoken “strain” in their lives – despite great sadness and frustration. Portrayal of inner strength and self-expression in Fagan’s novel shows that every foster child has a deeper meaning than delinquency and defiance. Interior strength may exist through an intense exterior image, and it is the role of the system – including the legal system, social workers, and foster carers – to provide nurturing and stable environments. Home placements and safer alternatives for coping will ultimately help these children cultivate healthy and powerful identities, as Anais does when she leaves the present system.

Once Anais is provided with the stability and resources to cultivate her moral foundation and her mind – forming a different and more stable identity than that provided by drugs and delinquency – the reader is justified in believing that she can and will grow strong. In Paris, Anais changes her name to “Frances,” which means “freedom.” This naming is her way of beginning the work of constructing a new identity, one that will let her reach her dreams. She plans her first moves: working in a café and walking a rescue dog.(43) She knows that she must succeed – for the sake of Teresa, Tash, Isla, and all of the other children left in Scotland. She takes back the power to control her life, which the Panopticon tried to take from her. Anais, now Frances, is now determined to reach another dream: to make something of her life. This is the ultimate play of her freedom, despite opposition by all odds.


1. Joseph Doyle, “Child Protection and Child Outcomes: Measuring the Effects of Foster Care,” American Economic Review 97, no. 5 (2007): 1-2.
2. Doyle, 1-2.
3. Thomas McDonald, “Assessing the Long-Term Effects of Foster Care: A Research Synthesis,” Institute for Research and Poverty 57 (1993): 22.
4. Ibid., 40-41.
5. Ibid., 92-105.
6. “What we know about the effects of foster care,” 22.
7. Jenni Fagan, The Panopticon (London: William Heinemann, 2012), 87.
8. Michel Foucault, Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 200.
9. Ibid., 201.
10. Ibid., 201-202. .
11. Ibid., 204.
12. Ibid., 205.
13. Ibid., 205.
14. Foucault, 100.
15. Fagan, 191.
16. Ibid., 192.
17. Fagan, 85.
18. Ibid., 56.
19. Foucault, 234.
20. Ibid., 100.
21. Ibid., 251.
22. Lin, 1-2.
23. Ibid., 19.
24. Ibid., 19.
25. Ibid., 19.
26. Ibid., 19.
27. Ibid., 20-21.
28. Lin, 26.
29. Ibid., 26.
30. Ibid., 32.
31. Fagan, 123.
32. Lin, 32-37.
33. Fagan, 131.
34. Ibid., 50.
35. “What we know about the effects of foster care,” 33.
36. “What we know about the effects of foster care,” 22.
37. Ibid., 22.
38. Fagan, 192.
39. The Scottish Government, Looked After Children Strategic Implementation Group, National Foster Care Review: Final Report (Glasgow: University of Strathclyde, December 2013), 7, 28.
40. National Foster Care Review, 3, 23.
41. Fagan, 154.
42. Ibid., 15.
43. Fagan, 281.

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