Readers en masse shared their dilemmas with Ritsema – and always received an answer

It was an unusual question to the visitors of the weekly market in Leiden: whether they wanted to take a seat in a waiting tent to tell their biggest secret to two students. Beatrijs Ritsema and her friend Dancker Daamen used the harvest (“Sometimes I have a strong desire to go to bed with someone other than my boyfriend”) for their graduation research into the nature and role of secrets. The most striking results, the two social psychologists told the newspaper in 1978 The Free People: many secrets are sexual in nature and women share secrets considerably more easily than men.

The much-read and much-appreciated column ‘Moderne Manners’ in Trouw, with which Ritsema made a name for herself years later, was essentially a continuation of her tent on the Leiden market. Readers en masse shared their dilemmas with her, after which the finely tuned Ritsema provided them with advice, without sparing the senders (‘You shouldn’t take it all so seriously’).

Many more requests did not make it to the newspaper, but Ritsema, who was born in Tunisia, always provided an answer. “She saw that as her task,” says her husband Maarten Huygen, former NRC-journalist.

“Beatrice was incredibly dutiful.” Until the bitter end. Last week, with her last strength, she dictated to their son Felix the last entry for her column. “Her work was also a wonderful distraction from her illness,” says Huygen.

Strict upbringing

As the child of a geologist working at Shell, Ritsema grew up in Colombia, among other places. She enjoyed a strict upbringing with her two sisters, partly because of her mother’s fearful nature. Fate defied the family. A sister was killed by a drunk driver, her father suffered serious brain damage in a climbing accident. Matters that Ritsema spoke little about. She preferred to focus on her work and literature.

She developed her love for writing at the famous student magazine Propria Cures, where the editorial staff in the late 1970s was populated by humorous men such as Erik van Muiswinkel and guest editor Ivo de Wijs. “Beatrijs was one of the boys,” remembers friend and co-editor Ad van Iterson. The editorial office was a bewildered incubator of literary talent. Iterson: “Beatrice felt at home there.” Ritsema’s contributions were well-thought-out, but fluently written. Iterson: “In the style of Renate Rubinstein.”

At the intercession of the well-known writer, the talented Ritsema ended up at NRC, to which she contributed every two weeks. “Renate saw Beatrijs as her successor,” says Adriaan van Dis, who in those days compiled the page on which her pieces appeared. “We had to make room for that at the newspaper, she thought. And she was right about that.”

With her husband, Ritsema had three children with whom she played games for hours. “Man-worse-you-don’t belong to one of the games for which she had a lot of patience,” says Huygen.

Miss Manners

Friends paint a picture of a close-knit and warm family, with its own rhythm and numerous habits. “Every Sunday we walked together, even in the last phase of Beatrice’s life. We both liked that consistency, that rhythm,” says husband Huygen. Laughing: “Call it quietly civil. Beatrice didn’t care about that.”

Ritsema got the idea for her successful column during their time in America. She read in there The Washington Post the etiquette column ‘Miss Manners’, in which Judith Martin sketched readers every week how things should be done. Ritsema interpreted this task somewhat more broadly and dealt with all kinds of dilemmas, which she commented on in her own, down-to-earth way. She was not into the endless deepening of the emotional life. Her advice was practical, unorthodox and humorous, with her psychological background and unlikely knowledge of literature as building blocks.

She therefore did not seek deeper explanations for the lung cancer that killed her at the age of 69. It was just a coincidence that the disease struck her. Huygen: “But very sad. It was wonderful to be with her.”