Jenni Fagan visits HMP Downview to discuss Ootlin

This month the column comes from Downview where the group had a visit from Scottish author Jenni Fagan. Cathy Wells Cole, who runs the group and was the PRG outstanding volunteer for 2023, tells us how it went.

Jenni Fagan visited HMP Downview in October to discuss her new memoir, Ootlin. She’s a successful novelist, poet, and film-maker but is only now able to write about her younger self. Jenni’s life, from birth to the age of 15, was spent in the Scottish care system, and the book is a raw and powerful account of how she survived it.

Which she did, but only just. We had previously discussed Ootlin (it’s a Scottish term for an outsider, someone who doesn’t belong) in one of the most engaged and heart-rending PRG groups I can remember. For a readership with direct experience of foster homes, care homes, adoption – either in their own lives or the lives of their children – every word of this book rings true.

As a small girl Jenni went from placement to placement before going to a harsh adoptive family. Every attempt to please her new mother failed, and she began absconding (at 11), sleeping rough, taking up drugs and being sexually mistreated.

Some of the episodes are blurred in her memory, for which I was grateful. Yet here she was, bright as a button, with a bagful of books heisted from her publisher’s office on the way to Downview to be donated to the library, chatting to the women who came to hear her and articulating experiences they recognised all too well. Would the book not be triggering, I’d asked the group the week before. Absolutely not!

Some of the women were moved to tears and they all found it inspiring and hopeful. One woman put her finger on why: even at her lowest, Jenni Fagan was a writer, and the notebooks she kept through the worst times show that writing was always an escape route for her. She is always aware of the sky, the stars – sounds a bit sentimental, but the writing lifts it. You believe her.

She read a passage from the book, about writing a poem as a young girl and coming across it again in her notebook: there was her feeling, on the page, articulated. That sensation helped her through. Though she also tells a story about having a piece of writing praised by the English teacher, and feeling so mortified that she threw it away as soon as she could. As an Ootlin, all she wanted was to fit in and be like the others.

It was very hard to extricate Jenni from the women, who just wanted to keep talking to her, but she had a train to catch back to Edinburgh.

I feel enormously grateful that Jenni took the time to come and talk so openly and inspiringly to the women at Downview. It’s a visit none of us will forget.

With thanks to Penguin Random House for organising Jenni’s visit and for generously providing copies of her book.

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