Ask people of a certain age to name a famous sex therapist and the answer will probably be “Dr. Ruth.” Ryan White‘s new documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, filmed as the still active Ruth Westheimer was approaching her 90th birthday, now reveals more about her as a person.
“Dr. Ruth’s public life turns out to be the least interesting piece of her story. The first half of the documentary is artistically expansive and frequently emotional,” notes Dan Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter.
Here’s why, as reported by Amy Nicholson, Variety: “…Half of the documentary is spent tracing how Karola Ruth Siegel, of Frankfort, Germany, became the only member of her Jewish family to survive the Holocaust. When she was 10, her mother put her on a kindertransport to a Swiss orphanage. She never saw her parents again, though she still has every letter they sent until communication abruptly stopped.”
The second half is more about her professional life, which has included sex education and therapy, authoring books, and frequent appearances on TV and radio. According to Robert Abele, The Wrap, “America’s Favorite Sex Therapist Gets a Cheerful, Enlightening Doc Portrait.”
Some info about her career, via Justin Chang, LA Times: “What made Westheimer’s 1980s radio program, ‘Sexually Speaking,’ so radical wasn’t just the frank advice she offered her anxious callers or the ease with which she normalized the use of words like ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ on the air. It was the reassuring lilt in her delivery, the gentle, grandmotherly insistence that the matters under discussion, embarrassing though they might be to those listening, were nothing to be ashamed of…”
Her inner life apparently receives little mention. Amy Nicholson, Variety:
The irony at the core of the Dr. Ruth persona is that the maverick who made the bedroom public is herself incredibly private, and while she encourages women to get intimate with their bodies, she’s not in touch with her own emotions. Still, she is vocal about respecting boundaries, and White acquiesces, trusting that the facts of Westheimer’s life say plenty about her peppy workaholism. At her most personal, Dr. Ruth tells White that as a survivor, she feels an obligation to live out loud. This refugee who wasn’t even allowed to attend high school managed to earn a doctorate and grab a microphone — and she has no intention of letting go.
Some of the important things we do know about Dr. Ruth are from her words and deeds, per Josh Modell, AV Club:
She’s been unwavering in her support of gay rights, reproductive rights, and empowerment of women, though much to her granddaughter’s chagrin, she resists labeling herself a feminist. More than once in Ask Dr. Ruth, she’s told that her advice—and really just her very existence—saved someone’s life, and she happily accepts that claim as true. She knows that she’s been a force for good in the world, for acceptance and equality.
Watch the trailer below. If you can’t find the movie in theaters, it’s on Hulu: