If you are in the mood for a joyous, poignant, powerful and inspiring documentary, watch Ask Dr. Ruth. Ryan White’s film about the life of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a Holocaust survivor who became America's most famous sex therapist, is an absolute gem.
You hear her before you see her.
White's documentary begins with the happy sound of humming before the soon to be 90 year old has a little fun with her virtual assistant. “Alexa, am I going to get a boyfriend?” she asks. “Sorry, I don’t know that,” the AI replies. Dr. Ruth explodes with laughter. “I don’t know either!” she exclaims. “Unplug her. If she doesn’t know that, what good is she?”
Moments later, Dr. Ruth asks another question. “Alexa, who is Dr. Ruth?” Alexa answers: "Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a German born Jewish immigrant to the United States who became a fixture in late night television and a major pop culture figure as a sex therapist, media personality and author”.
Dr. Ruth is delighted. “She knows who I am,” she says smiling broadly and laughing in her characteristically charming and wonderfully endearing way. “Okay, I think I’m going to keep her.”
And just like that, White introduces his subject - enlightening those who may not be aware of Dr. Ruth and also reminding viewers who may have forgotten her lasting influence.
In addition to interviews with Dr. Ruth, her family, friends and colleagues, White's documentary also features footage of Dr. Ruth on television - being candid about sex and relationships in a way that still feels remarkable. Meanwhile, the film shows footage of Dr. Ruth being talked about and impersonated by others (including the forever missed Robin Williams).
There is an energy to this documentary that is matched only by the effervescence of Dr. Ruth herself. She does not believe in retirement and is always on the go - just ask Pierre Lehu, her minister of communications. He has worked with Dr. Ruth for 36 years, since the start of her television career. He says that he’d love to retire, but she has no intention of slowing down.
At one point, her children (daughter Miriam and son Joel) wonder if this is their mother's way of coping with the tragedies that she has had to face during her life. Having reminded us of Dr. Ruth’s career, White explores the impact of these events.
Using animation, the documentary takes us back to her early years in Frankfurt, Germany. After an idyllic start, Karola Ruth Siegel’s childhood was devastated following the rise of Nazism and the persecution of Jewish people.
A week after Kristallnacht in 1938, her father was taken away by the Nazis. Ruth was just ten years old. Predicting the dark times to come, her parents sent Ruth away on a Kindertransport train to an orphanage in Switzerland.
It is deeply moving to hear Dr. Ruth read from her childhood diaries and recall how difficult it was to be removed from the family she knew and loved. During the war and for a long time afterwards, she felt incredibly lonely. With the loss of her parents she had also lost her place in the world.
Unsurprising then that, after a turbulent time in Israel, Dr. Ruth would be attracted to the US. She remembers being inspired by the Statue Of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Here, she thought, was a country that welcomed immigrants, a place where she - now a single mother of a beloved daughter - could start a new life and continue to pursue learning and the education that she prized.
Dr. Ruth’s impressive and hard earned academic credentials enabled her to be (largely) accepted as a professional sex and relationship therapist. Meanwhile, her progressive, straight talking, accessible style and her non-threatening demeanor (“no one is as small as me”) brought her into contact with larger and larger audiences.
Of course, as White’s film shows, not everyone agreed with Dr. Ruth’s frankness. However, this did not stop her championing those who desperately needed a voice. Her life experiences helped her to understand those in need of help - particularly those unjustly treated by society.
For example, she empowered women to talk about their sexual needs and, following three marriages (her last, to Fred Westheimer, is the relationship that she defines as her only real
marriage), she encouraged conversations about the reality of relationships. In addition, Dr. Ruth has long supported abortion rights and raised awareness about AIDs (“Respect is not debatable,” she states).
Despite speaking up for minorities and supporting a variety of important societal issues, Dr. Ruth refuses to be drawn on her political beliefs. While she shares her story with White (the warmth of their relationship is clear), much of her life remains private.
However, it is not hard to guess where her loyalties might lie and how difficult it must be to live in a world where abortion rights are now under threat and immigration has become such a toxic issue.
Politics aside, Dr. Ruth describes how, having lost her family, she wanted to leave a mark on the world. She has certainly achieved this aim. White’s charming and moving documentary, which concludes with poignant footage from her 90th birthday celebration, reminds us just how important Dr. Ruth’s work, advice and support has been and continues to be for so many people.