As Jeannette de Beauvoir drove up to the former St. Jean de Dieu Hospital, now the Institute for Mental Health in Montreal, she saw a playful giraffe on the lawn outside the day care center with a sign that said, “Watch Out for Our Children.” It’s ironic considering the horrors that once happened there. It was there that, for decades, the orphans were subjected to abuse and medical experimentation. De Beauvoir was there to do research for her new mystery novel Asylum, which was released this past spring.
The Truro writer looked into some largely unexplored territory of Montreal, delving into two shocking and very true stories in a disturbing period in Quebec’s history. The first involved the treatment of children in orphanages, who were often forcibly separated from their unwed mothers. Vulnerable and considered outcasts by the conservative Catholic culture, these children were largely ignored by society at large, and under the government of Quebec, Premier Maurice Duplessis had the children put under the care of the Church. The federal government of Canada was more generous in its subsidies for hospitals than it was for orphanages, and over several decades, approximately 20,000 children were falsely classified as mentally ill.
“You could go to bed in an orphanage and wake up in an asylum,” says de Beauvoir. “That’s crazy; no pun intended.”
The second true life story that provided inspiration was Project MKULtra, a CIA program where experiments were done on human subjects from the 1950s through the 1970s in developing drugs, or “truth serums,” to be used in interrogations and torture. Everything from LSD to hypnosis to sensory deprivation was used on American and Canadian citizens under this program. And while there is currently no hard evidence that would link MKULtra to the Duplessis orphanages, it is considered probable that the two horror stories met, which they certainly do in de Beauvoir’s fictional mystery, Asylum.
Published by St. Martin’s Press, Asylum is the first of a mystery series introducing the character Martine LeDuc, the fictional public relations director for the City of Montreal. Four women have been murdered, which from her professional standpoint is bad for the tourism industry. As such, she begins to work with police lieutenant Julian Fletcher in an attempt to do damage control. Through the investigation it’s discovered that all four women had some connection to the MKUltra program.
The book has been well received by critics and readers alike, so much so that the second volume, Deadly Jewels, another historical mystery novel, will be released in March 2016. That one is about the British Crown jewels being hidden in Quebec during World War II and then returned with several pieces missing. A third volume is currently in the works.
With a lifelong passion for books, reading, and writing, Asylum is de Beauvoir’s ninth book, though the first one published using her own name. Throughout the course of her career she’s used a variety of pen names, sometimes to simplify her difficult to spell and remember real name. She continues the practice, applying noms du plume to a variety of books series: like Jeannette Angell, J. A. Squires, Jeannette Cezanne, and Alicia Stone, which she laughs about, as it is also the pen name for someone who writes “poorly written porn.” The practice began with her first publication, 1984’s Légende, a lesbian-themed novel published by Alyson Books, which was released under the pseudonym Jeannine Allard, as her parents lived in a small, conservative New Hampshire town at the time, and she feared the response to what was then a daring and taboo subject to write about.
“It was frustrating,” says de Beauvoir. “I was finally published and I couldn’t tell anybody.”
Raised in France by her American mother and French father, de Beauvoir’s family was always a literary one. Voracious readers, books were always around the house and de Beauvoir’s mother took her into Paris frequently to visit several English-language bookshops in the city to stock up. She developed the excitement writers feel when they see great stories all around them in their daily lives. As such, her writing dances from genre to genre, most recently focusing on mysteries, though she is always working on a variety of manuscripts.
“I stumbled upon mysteries because I enjoy reading them,” says de Beauvoir. “And I found it’s a really cool community.”
With this current mystery series it was her Franco-American background that drew her to Montreal, a city that mixes the culture of Europe and North America in a way that makes her feel at home. She also took a cue from the writer Phyllis A. Whitney, who would set her next book in a locale she wanted to vacation in, satiating a love for travel, history, and her craft of writing all in one. Asylum marks the first time one of her books has been picked up by a major publisher, a real accomplishment in the complexities and heartbreaks of life as a writer. This coup is made all the more sweet as, again, this book, her most popular to date, is released under her real name.
“It feels good to publish under my own name,” says de Beauvoir with a smile. “It feels like I’m a real writer after all these years!”
Asylum is available wherever books are sold, as well as online. for more information about Jeannette de Beauvoir and her other books, visit jeannetteauthor.com.