“Anais Hendricks, fifteen, is in the back of a police car. She is headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can’t remember what’s happened, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and Anais’s school uniform is covered in blood.
Raised in foster care from birth and moved through twenty-three placements before she even turned seven, Anais has been let down by just about every adult she has ever met. Now a counter-culture outlaw, she knows that she can only rely on herself. And yet despite the parade of horrors visited upon her early life, she greets the world with the witty, fierce insight of a survivor.
Anais finds a sense of belonging among the residents of the Panopticon – they form intense bonds, and she soon becomes part of an ad hoc family. Together, they struggle against the adults that keep them confined. When she looks up at the watchtower that looms over the residents though, Anais knows her fate: she is an anonymous part of an experiment, and she always was. Now it seems that the experiment is closing in.”
Thoughts: The one thing that will impress the reader the most upon finishing The Panopticon is the pervading sense of injustice. While most legal systems consider a suspect innocent until proven guilty, the court officers assigned to Anais’ case never even flirt with the possibility that she might be innocent in the policewoman’s assault. The unfairness of her treatment at the hands of the very same adults who are supposed to be looking out for her best interests is the real tragedy in a story filled with depressing and upsetting stories.
Anais is somewhat archetypical but no less effective in generating interest and sympathy. The psychological impact of having lived in the foster system since birth alone provides some hint as to the delicate nature of Anais’ feelings and sensitive state of mind. For all her tough exterior, she desperately seeks what everyone takes for granted – love, shelter, and safety. The true tragedy is that the adults in her life utterly refuse to look beyond her outward appearance and see the intelligent, capable, and extremely lonely little girl she is.
Anais is a fighter. She might have a miserable past and a penchant for drugs and alcohol, but she just wants a chance. The Panopticon may be the system’s version of a last-chance option before total incarceration, but it is Anais’ first real chance for friendship and even happiness. The impromptu family established among society’s misfit children provides a sense of belonging and understanding that serves to help her break out of her anti-social shell and begin to trust again. It is a transformation that fills a reader with hope, only to have that hope crushed at the bias shown by the adults in her life.
The Panopticon is not for everyone. The language is understandably very rough, and the subject matter is quite upsetting at times given everything that happens to Anais and that she does to herself. The self-fulfilling prophecy that is her behavior is frustrating and difficult to watch unfold. Still, as bleak as the story is, the reader still glimpses slivers of hope – hope that Anais can turn her life around, hope that some adult will take her under his or her wing and provide her with the type of nurturing environment she needs, hope that she is not already irredeemably lost to a system that cannot cope with the multitude of children in need. Through her anti-hero, Ms. Fagan manages to shed light on these children and condemn the social system designed to help them in this stark, thought-provoking novel.