The sex therapist and pop culture icon stars in a new documentary about her life and career.
Dr. Ruth and sex talk go together like the birds and the bees, but there’s so much more to the 90-year-old therapist and pop culture icon. The documentary Ask Dr. Ruth (which comes to theaters this Friday before arriving on Hulu June 1) sheds new light on its short-statured but larger-than-life subject.
Director Ryan White (The Keepers) chronicles the ways Westheimer transformed how Americans talk about sex through her radio and TV shows in the ’80s and ’90s (she famously hosted Sexually Speaking). But it’s her take on the lesser-known parts of her life, like surviving the Holocaust after leaving her native Germany on a Kindertransport train at 10, that’s a revelation.
Westheimer had no reservations about the documentary delving into her painful past. “I wanted to show things that people don’t know, honoring my background and my parents and my grandmother,” she says during an interview at her New York City apartment, where she’s lived for more than five decades. “Once I decided to do it, I knew exactly what I wanted to show. And it came out beautifully.”
The documentary uses animated sequences to depict the young Westheimer being sent to Switzerland, where she lived in an orphanage during World War II. (She never saw her parents again.) From there, the film shows her life in Israel and, later, her arrival in America as a single mother and the subsequent launch of her career.
Initially, Westheimer wasn’t completely sold on the animation idea. “I didn’t want them to make me look like Pinocchio,” she says. “I was worried, but I didn’t have to worry. I love it.” She was particularly struck by one scene showing her younger self saying goodbye to her mother and grandmother from the train that takes her to Switzerland. “They did a brilliant thing by showing an empty railroad station, only my mother and grandmother, me on the train.” The station wasn’t actually empty, of course, but to a 10-year-old Westheimer it must have felt that way. “That’s exactly right,” she agrees. “I didn’t tell them to do that in the animation, they found it.”
Ask Dr. Ruth follows Westheimer around New York and on visits to Switzerland and Israel, as she reflects on her unique journey from German-Jewish refugee to enduring media figure. One powerful scene involves her visit to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where she revisits the records on her parents. “I wanted to show what Yad Vashem can do,” she says. “And there was the German word ‘verschwunden’ [which means ‘disappeared’] next to my mother and I said, that has to be taught. So this film is like a grave for my parents, the grandparents, for everybody who doesn’t have graves.” Later, she adds that she wants the film to stand up to Holocaust deniers, so they “cannot say to me that it didn’t happen.”
The documentary also explores how Westheimer, despite her apolitical persona, has spoken out on abortion and gay rights — including when her rise to fame came amid the AIDS crisis. “I certainly knew that I had to be outspoken, and to stand up and be counted when people did not want to talk about it,” she recalls.
And fittingly for the perennially upbeat Westheimer (who still teaches and is also working on a new version of her 1995 Sex For Dummies book, targeting it for millennials) she’s already thinking about Oscar prospects in the wake of the film’s Sundance premiere back in January. “I hope we get a lot of awards!” she gushes. “I would like very much the nomination, not just for me, but it would be wonderful for [producer Rafael Marmor] and for Ryan, the filmmaker, for their whole career. If we get it, wonderful.”
Ask Dr. Ruth