Dr. Ruth Westheimer has shared many intimacies. Her original radio show, books, and television iterations include frank discussions of sexuality. Yet, she is still quite a private person. Therefore, director Ryan White (The Case Against 8) weaves together two portraits in his biographical documentary on Westheimer, two parallel inquiries of public and private life.
Ask Dr. Ruth is about conversation. Westheimer loves to talk, to give her energy and time and thought as nourishment to others. At 90 years old, people are still asking her about sex, and she is still answering. She hears frustrations, and she advocates for mutual and consenting pleasure. She’s about action and results, demystification and destigmatization. So relentlessly positive and entertaining, she provides affirming quotes like “we don’t know what normal is” and “respect is not debatable.” It’s hard to imagine the convergence of events that created her wit and wisdom.
Those events were harrowing. Karola Ruth Siegel was born near Frankfurt in Germany to an Orthodox Jewish family in 1928. Her father, Julius, was taken by the Nazis in 1938. Ruth was sent away via Kindertransport to a children’s home in Switzerland. After age 10, she never saw her parents again. Their letters stopped coming, and she assumed the worst. After the war, she went to Jerusalem and served as a sniper in the Haganah Jewish military organization. At age 20, she was injured in an explosion and had to learn to walk again. Animated sequences and passages from Ruth’s diaries help portray this tragic and violent history.
Ruth is her refugee name, taken at a camp in 1945 as she was making crucial decisions about her post-war identity. She seems to make swift decisions and declarations, knowing her mind and general direction. The film pivots from past to present and back again to show those decisions and their outcomes. She married her first husband, and they went to Paris. She began to study psychology at the Sorbonne. She left the marriage to continue those studies. Another marriage spurred emigration to the United States in the mid-1950s and a first child, but she soon tired of that union as well. Dr. Ruth terms these “legalized love affairs,” never experiencing true love until her third marriage to Fred Westheimer in 1961.
America was home because she felt free and safe among other immigrants. She learned English with the help of romance novels. She continued her studies of psychology and sociology, earning a doctorate and working with the famous therapist Helen Singer Kaplan at Cornell. Eventually, she started her own practice and trained counselors at Planned Parenthood. But 1981 was the turning point for “Dr. Ruth.” Radio WYNY requested sex education commentary as part of their community mandate from the FCC. The radio show, “Sexually Speaking,” was born at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Nobody knew how this Sunday late-night program with a German-American doctor would go. It was explosively popular. Ruth was shrewd, following with books and television specials and commercials and guest lectures.
The Dr. Ruth persona has coined some revealing nicknames, like “Grandma Freud” and “the happy munchkin of sex,” and Ruth leans into those portrayals. The film shows her ruminating over her reception, how her age and stature and foreignness contributed to this magical trust with the public. She’s hesitant to betray that trust with any directly political rhetoric. This position causes a kitchen-table confrontation scene with her family members.
Ruth won’t talk politics! What? She resists the term “feminist” on camera, even though she wholeheartedly agrees with its definition and tenets. Her granddaughter seems flummoxed by this resistance, as was I. She says she’s “old fashioned.” That’s a cop-out, we all know it. Sex is political. Her advocacy for education, not judgment, during the HIV/AIDS crisis certainly taught her that. Maintaining a broadly palatable brand isn’t a reason to deny the politics of sexuality and the issues of health and power that inevitably follow. She can continue to empathize with those who don’t understand, because it’s still her job to make them see the practical realities of sex. She says she won’t retire, so she can’t relinquish that simple truth.
Despite that lingering tension, the documentary concludes with a touching 90th birthday celebration and all the associated reflections on Ruth’s lives, both private and public. I’m so grateful that she employs an archivist, because her accumulated work is so powerful and important, strange and funny. This film carries so many intimate moments, they build and buttress a relationship that feels strong at the end. We know her more, and to Dr. Ruth, knowledge is everything.