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FILM REVIEW: ‘Ask Dr. Ruth’ profiles the astonishing life of famous sexpert

This 4-foot-7-inch dynamo with a thick German accent connected with her audience because of her candor and her good intuitive advice.

Great Barrington — I often wondered why, at many weddings, the Holocaust survivors danced the wildest and most joyfully. After seeing “Ask Dr. Ruth,” I have a glimmer of an understanding. Knowing very little about this iconic figure of the 1980s, I was astounded by her vitality, her exhilaration, her appetite for life. This documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was enthusiastically received there. The Berkshire International Film Festival crowd at the early morning screening at the Triplex Cinema Sunday (June 2) was also bowled over!

The director, Ryan White, chose this subject after working on a very depressing seven-part documentary about sexual abuse in the clergy (“The Keepers”). He needed some sunlight to help heal his depression dealing with this subject. Dr. Ruth Westheimer was the cure. And yet, her backstory would not foreshadow a very happy, uplifting life. Karola Ruth Siegel was a German Jew, an only child of Orthodox parents. Her happy childhood was curtailed when her father was arrested by the Nazis when she was 10 years old. She remembered his wave to her when she saw him outside her window, “to make it easier to say goodbye,” seemingly to help her not to worry, but she never saw him again. He wrote her mother and grandmother from Auschwitz that she must be sent to Switzerland on the Kindertransport to save her life. For several years she received letters from her mother and father, but they abruptly stopped in 1941 and she never saw her parents again. She  found out at Yad Vashem (the memorial  in Jerusalem to the victims of the Holocaust) that her father died in Auschwitz and her mother “disappeared.” This theme of being alone in the world and desire for connection would follow her throughout her life.

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Dr. Ruth has had an amazing life—she isn’t only about giving sexual advice on the radio and TV. While she was growing up at the orphanage in Switzerland, she was gregarious and hungry for knowledge. However, the girls there were not allowed to go to high school. She had a boyfriend she was in love with who would teach her by moonlight everything he learned that day. She was reunited 70-plus years later with this love in Israel and it is one of the dearest moments in the film: “We never had sex, but he was the sweetest kisser.” When she left the orphanage (she likes to call herself an “orphan of the Holocaust”), she traveled to Palestine. Soon she was fighting for this country during the Palestine War of 1947–49 as a superior sniper in the Haganah, protecting  Israeli soldiers. She sustained major injuries and almost lost her legs, but did recover.

She married twice, becoming a single mother (a big deal in those days), studied at the Sorbonne, and eventually came to America. She did marry a third time to the “love of her life,” Fred Westheimer. He adopted her daughter and they had a son together. She studied psychology, education and sexual behavior and received two doctorates in New York City. Her work with Planned Parenthood introduced her to the field that she became most famous for: helping people with sexual questions. Her support for the LGBTQ community at the height of the AIDS crisis was well-appreciated by them. She described her encouragement as due to the fact that she had been treated as “subhuman” in Germany and she felt that she needed to champion others in this situation. Many young gay listeners to her shows felt that she “saved” them by her advice and made them feel heard. And she has always been a proponent of abortion rights: women should take ownership of their bodies in every way.

This 4-foot-7-inch dynamo with a thick German accent connected with her audience because of her candor and her good intuitive advice. Her warmth throughout the film was palpable, constantly asking everyone, “Have you eaten?” This sexpert is really interested in helping people be less lonely and connecting with their partners. There are many clips in the documentary of her embarrassing talk show hosts with her use of correct anatomical words. But she got away with it because she was, after all, “Grandma Freud.” She never hesitated to describe the sexual act while making her audience laugh or squirm.

Now that she is 91, she hasn’t slowed down. She has written three books this year, still pens a column for TIME magazine, and continues to make radio appearances. This documentary of her life—of a woman who lost everything but is living a truly self-actualized life—is so inspirational. The director, Ryan White, said she is his “friend for life.” Her joie de vivre, her exuberance for life, is contagious. We can all learn from Dr. Ruth, and it isn’t only about sexual positions! I recommend this film for anyone who needs to be reminded how life is a gift and, in the end, being connected to others is the most important goal in our lives.


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