Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer spends much of Ask Dr. Ruth, a new documentary about her life, making sure that everyone around her has been fed: “Have you eaten?”, “Are you hungry?”, “Did you eat?” No one is safe from her questioning – not her grandchildren, not her driver, not even director Ryan White.
Asked about this during Sundance, where the film had its world premiere this year, Westheimer told Vulture, “I’ll tell you what. This guy [White] is so tall, simply, I was worried. He’s so tall, he’s so slim. He works very hard. The cameraman, David, works very hard. All I have to do as a Jewish woman is make sure they eat. And I do, in the film. Did you see?”
Ask Dr. Ruth is full of moments like these; of Westheimer asking the questions when she’s supposed to be the one answering them. The 90-year-old sex therapist and media personality, who first shot to stardom with her syndicated radio and television programs in the 1980s, is a pint-sized (she’s 4-foot-7) ball of energy. As Pierre, her manager of several decades, tells us, “I would love to retire, but Dr. Ruth won’t retire.”
We last saw White directing Netflix’s true crime docuseries The Keepers, about the still-unsolved murder of Baltimore nun Cathy Cesnik in the late 1960s. (In seven episodes, it makes the compelling case that Cesnik knew too much about the routine sexual abuses of students at the high school where she taught.) Westheimer didn’t love the idea of making a feature-length documentary about her life, but agreed to have dinner with White after binge-watching the series. The two projects are vastly different in terms of subject matter, and yet both highlight the tenacity – even joviality – of older women who’ve faced unimaginable trauma.
At ten years old, the German-born Westheimer (then Karola Siegel) was put on a Kindertransport train to Switzerland by her family, where she lived at a children’s home for the duration of the Second World War. This chapter of her story is told in lush animated sequences, with the odd surviving photo from her teenage years. Journal entries from her time in Switzerland are read by a delicate, American-sounding voice. (This is admittedly jarring at first; the real Westheimer speaks with a thick German accent that has always been a hallmark of her media persona.) Her wartime writings suggest a lonely but optimistic young girl with a keen desire to learn, someone who saw herself as capable of big things.
Westheimer stopped receiving letters from her family in 1941; none of them survived the war. She’s uncomfortable with the term “survivor”, instead preferring to call herself an “orphan of the Holocaust”, but Ask Dr. Ruth sees her negotiate this part of her identity and history in a new way. At one point in the film, White travels with her to Israel’s Yad Vashem to confirm her parents’ fates. It’s an upsetting moment for all parties, and yet Westheimer doesn’t shed a single tear. (Her daughter, Miriam, tells us that she has only seen her mother cry once, following the death of her late husband.) The film is quite interested in how its subject’s hardships have informed her life and personality: has trauma steeled her? Has it fuelled her career, one that’s dealt expressly in human connection and pleasure?
After Switzerland, Ask Dr. Ruth makes stops around the world as Karola Siegel becomes Ruth K. Westheimer. She trains as a sniper and is severely injured in a cannon blast in Israel. She marries and divorces twice before settling down with Fred Westheimer, her husband of almost forty years. She studies psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris, then completes her Master’s and doctorate programs in New York City. The film eventually anchors in Manhattan, where Westheimer has lived in the same Washington Heights apartment since 1956. It’s here that she’d become a fixture of the city’s late-night radio and television scene, doling out sex and relationship advice at a time when doing so was a lot more controversial. (In one scene, we see a man make a rather pathetic attempt to put her under citizen’s arrest.)
Some of Westheimer’s views on sexuality might be regressive by today’s standards, but Ask Dr. Ruth convincingly argues that she deserves credit for her forward-thinking stances on certain issues during her career. At the height of the AIDS crisis, her mandate was education and compassion. And, although she won’t discuss her political leanings in the film, it’s noted that she has always been loudly and publicly pro-choice.
The sharp-witted Westheimer would be a compelling subject under any filmmaker’s direction, but White has done her story justice. Regardless of one’s familiarity with her life and work, Ask Dr. Ruth is a balmy biographical portrait that’s as funny as it is emotional. As Westheimer tells us herself, “I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world.”
Ask Dr. Ruth is out on Hulu on June 1st
by Sydney Urbanek
Sydney Urbanek is a writer and the founder of Reel Honey. Based in Toronto, she writes about film, music videos, and chronic illness. She knows the “Telephone” choreography but please don’t ask her to do it. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @sydurbanek.