I like good documentary films about interesting human lives, and “Ask Dr. Ruth” is one of such cases. Here is a remarkable old German lady who moved to US after surviving the World War II and then became an unlikely celebrity willing to talk anything about sex for helping and enlightening many people out there, and the documentary gives us a lively and engaging portrait of this exceptional woman who is still active even at this point despite being over 90.
The documentary begins with how Dr. Ruth Westheimer is going through her usual daily schedule. While living alone in her longtime residence located in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, she is ready for another busy day full of many things to do, and we subsequently see her going here and there for giving interviews or lectures.
In the meantime, she tells us about her dramatic life course. She was born as Karola Ruth Siegel in Germany in 1928, and her parents were members of a local Orthodox Jewish community, which certainly was thrown into danger when the country was dominated by the Nazi Party during the 1930s. Not long after Westheimer’s father was taken to a labor camp along with many other Jewish people in 1938, Westheimer’s mother decided to send young Westheimer to Switzerland, and, sadly, their eventual separation at a train station was the last time when young Westheimer saw her mother.
Along with many other Jewish kids, young Westheimer came to stay in an orphanage, and she soon got accustomed to her changed situation. Although she and other Jewish kids were demanded to do a number of jobs including taking care of other kids in the orphanage, things were not that bad for them, and, above all, they were safe from the horror of the World War II, which they later came to learn from a group of Jewish orphans who fortunately managed to escape into Switzerland.
While desperately hoping for her reunion with her family, young Westheimer remembered and then followed what her parents always emphasized to her. Although she was not allowed to study in high school like many other girls, she diligently taught herself through the school textbooks borrowed from her first boyfriend, and there is an amusing scene where Westheimer visits his residence and talks with him a bit about their old time in Switzerland.
When the war was over, young Westheimer was indirectly informed that her parents did not survive the war, and there is a painful moment when Westheimer visits the Holocaust memorial center in Israel for confirming what exactly happened to her parents. Thanks to the remaining records, she comes to learn that her father died in Auschwitz, but, to her sadness, she cannot find what really happened to her mother, who was simply disappeared at some point during the war.
Not long after the end of the war, young Westheimer went to Israel, and she subsequently participated in the war between Israel and Arab after being trained as a sniper. During that dangerous time, she could almost lose both of her two legs due to a serious injury, but she managed to recover fully from the injury in the end, and she later went to Paris along with her first husband for their respective academic education courses.
When her first husband decided to go back to Israel a few years later, Westheimer chose to stay in Paris for more study, so they came to have a divorce under mutual agreement, and then she met her second husband, with whom she moved to US in 1956 when she fortunately acquired enough money for that. Although she divorced again not long after coming to US, she never lost her spirit at all while keeping going as usual, and then she came to meet her third husband Fred Westheimer, who was her lifelong spouse till his death in 1997.
While working at Planned Parenthood, Westheimer became more interested in psychosexual therapy, and that led her to more education and studies. After getting a Ph.D. degree in Columbia University, she studied under a researcher named Helen Singer Kaplan during the 1970s, and she came to absorb more knowledge on sex and human mind while also becoming a qualified sex therapist.
And then there came a big break for her in the 1980s. She was asked to do a radio show on sex, and nobody expected much as sex was still a sensitive matter about which not many people were willing to discuss openly even at that time, but, what do you know, her radio show soon became quite more popular than expected although it was initially broadcast at Sunday midnight. Thanks to her no-nonsense approach to her sexual subjects as well as her irrepressible personality, Westheimer quickly drew lots of public attention, and a series of archival footage clips show us how much popular she became at that time.
Although she has usually stayed away anything involved with politics, Westheimer did not flinch at all from discussing those hot issues including abortion and AIDS, and she has also been a staunch advocate of gender equality for many years. She does not want to be called a feminist because she thinks she has been not as active as, say, Gloria Steinem or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but her daughter and granddaughter sharply point that she is indeed a feminist, and that is one of the most funniest moments in the documentary.
On the whole, “Ask Dr. Ruth” gives us the engaging overview on Westheimer’s life and career, and director Ryan White presents his human subject with considerable affection and respect. She has surely lived her life well while also enjoying her works, and I am sure that she will keep going for the rest of her remaining life.