Dr. Ruth Westheimer went by her first name long before Dr. Laura, Dr. Drew, and Dr. Phil. As a licensed sex therapist, she broke by taboos by going on the radio and on television to talk about what no one else would. She used words like “clitoris” and “penis” on network TV when most broadcasters were queasy about them (and they still kind of are). Her life story is also remarkable: she is a Holocaust survivor who became celebrity through her effervescent personality and sheer force of will. Ask Dr. Ruth is a crowd-pleasing documentary about her past, and how she still works just as hard even in her nineties. I recently had the chance to talk to Dr. Ruth and the film’s director Ryan White about the film, the #MeToo movement, and the problem of oversharing.
BYT: One thing that struck me about the film was the animated flashbacks. What kind of collaboration did you have on that, and what were your impressions when you first saw it?
Ryan White: Because Dr. Ruth had kept all her childhood diaries and the letters her parents had written her, I knew early on we would have to bring it alive. I always felt the film was three parts: [her] past, [her] famous years as a celebrity sex therapist, and modern day as a 90-year-old. I knew the second part would be intimate because of all the archival footage from her shows, but I always wanted to show the first part was just as intimate and personal as the other two. I didn’t want it at arm’s length, using B-roll from the Holocaust or something similar. I also knew she wouldn’t want to delve too deeply into all those memories, so the diary was a way to use her real voice without retelling all those stories. Before she knew the flashbacks would be animated, I asked about all these stories so we could get the details right. But you were worried about the animation, right?
Dr. Ruth: I was very worried, but I did not interfere in anything that you did. [points to my notebook] I want you to put that down. However, I was worried because I thought they were going to make me look like Pinocchio or Mickey Mouse. The people that did the animation – under Ryan’s direction – are brilliant. These days I’m concerned about loneliness, and that scene at the Frankfurt [train station] really hit me when I saw it the first time. I remember it was right before Sundance, and I threatened you with, “I’m not coming unless I can see the film first.” I had the film the next day.
RW: The next day you had me in your kitchen! I had to take the redeye.
DR: They showed the loneliness brilliantly because it wasn’t just my mother and my grandmother saying goodbye. There were hundreds of people who left for Switzerland that day. [The flashback] showed their loneliness, my loneliness, and it showed very nicely – this is true, by the way – how I made all the children sing on the train. You should ask the animators whether that was intentional.
RW: I already know the answer. It was intentional because we wanted complete focus on your mother and grandmother. As the train starts moving, they start moving away. We didn’t want a lot of visual elements, except for your faces and theirs.
BYT: You started the radio show in 1981, and obviously there have been so many advances in the way that public takes about sex. What is something that you think everyday people still struggle with?
DR: Sex therapists get less questions about women who do not achieve orgasms – I got many more in those days – and I don’t get many questions from men about premature ejaculations. There are books about it now, and I talked about it for ten years! What has not changes is the importance of the relationship, and the art of conversation. I think the message that women need to take responsibility for her own sexual satisfaction is accepted by everyone.
BYT: What do you think about the recent conversation everyone has been having about sexual abuse and harassment?
DR: Next question [laughs]. I’m not an expert, but I’m very worried because you cannot tell a woman anymore, “You look nice.” You cannot tell a woman anymore, “I like your dress.” There are big problems. On the other hand, it’s about time we talk about equal pay for work. This makes me think of the lovely scene [in the film] with my granddaughter where she argues I’m a feminist. It’s funny because I don’t think of myself as a feminist; I think of myself as an educator.
RW: But consent was a part of that! If you go back and watch her archives, you always talk about two consenting adults. You say, “Without consent, there is no sexual relationship.” There are three moments in the film where we say that, but you said that in every episode. I’d say you were one of the first to discuss the issue.
DR: Are you saying to the journalist that you don’t regret making the film?
RW: [laughs] No, I don’t regret it.
BYT: Another aspect of the film is how hardworking you are, and you’re working at the same pace you were twenty, thirty years ago. How has your age affected your work, if at all?
DR: Do you know the word “chutzpah”?
Yeah, I know that word.
DR: I think I might have more chutzpah now that I’m older. My attitude of being an educator has not changed. My belief that all I did was educate had not changed. I had a tremendous chutzpah because I had the nerve to go on the radio and TV to talk about those things no one else would. I think back to that scene [from Three’s Company] that makes me laugh, where a man asks, “Women have needs, too?” That’s very true.
BYT: What role do you think pop culture has in how we talk and think about sex? You mention the Three’s Company episode, but now you have singers like Beyoncé with lyrics about…
DR: Not my cup of tea. I am saying that you have to have a very fine line about your own life, your own experiences, and what you can teach. There is an attitude these days that it’s OK to spill everything. It’s a big problem because those people tell you – the journalists – probably regret twelve hours later.
BYT: I’m sorry. What do you mean by “spill everything”?
DR: For example, the woman in the film who talks about the abortion… that’s not a real episode.
RW: What she means is that everyone on her show was allowed anonymity. Radio people could use a fake name, and the people on television were actors. They were acting out a real situation, and she didn’t know what the situation was, but she’s always refused to put people’s faces on the air with their real sexual problems.
BYT: So how did that work? Would you imagine these situations, or would the public write something in and those scenarios were performed?
DR: These were all situations that happened in the privacy of my office, but I would never do a television program with people talking about their problems.
RW: It wasn’t scripted, though, and neither were your reactions. What I think means by “spill everything” – which is not in the film, and I wish we could have included it – was that her last show ended in the mid-1990s. That was those years when talk shows became very exploitative of people, and she wasn’t willing to do that.
BYT: The height of Jerry Springer.
RW: Exactly. She would never create a situation where the audience could point and laugh at the guests. In that way, I’d say what she did was very responsible.
BYT: As the film was made, were there any times you wish you weren’t being filmed, or you felt there should be a private moment?
DR: There were no private moments because I did not permit it. I was very happy at the last scene, the filming of my birthday party, and finally Ryan and I were alone in the apartment. There was no camera anywhere, and it was what, two in the morning?
RW: Yup, it was 2 a.m., but I think this is a good question. Did you think we were invasive at Yad Vashem, where you looked up what happened to your parents?
DR: I tell you what. I did it knowingly. I knew I needed to give the message with your film that people should go and check out what happened with their families. You know the Nazis kept superb record. I also wanted to show that it’s alright to delve into your past, as long as you don’t make it your life’s mission.
BYT: My favorite scene is the one where you’re talking with your ex-boyfriend in Switzerland. I know you talk more about intimate relationships, not friendships, how important is friendship to you? What advice would you give to people my age or Ryan’s age now that we’re getting older?
DR: You have to cultivate your friendships. You have to make sure you make time. I’m impressed by Ryan: every place I go with him, people pop up from his past and you have time to keep up with [your friends]. It’s a big feather in your cap. I think you’re a little unusual in this.
RW: You really value friendship because you lost everything. Those friendships from the orphanage became like family. It’s amazing how many of you are still alive and still friends, even in your nineties.
BYT: How often do you get to see each other?
DR: Once a year. The other friend I visit every year, and every year she has a complaint about my hair… Oh, put this down! Yesterday before the screening, I had somebody come in and do my hair. Who paid for that, Hulu? Write it down!
BYT: I’m writing it down.
RW: She’s just not a diva [about that stuff]. While we were shooting, I got this amazing photo of you doing your hair in the side mirror of a car as we were driving.
DR: Will you send it to me?
RW: Yeah, I’ll send it to you.
DR: Put it down that [Ryan] promised me some of the stuff that landed on the cutting room floor.
BYT: What’s your favorite sex scene from a movie?
DR: I love the scene in Gone with the Wind where [Rhett] says, “You should be kissed and often by someone who knows how.” Any time I think of that, I smile.
Ask Dr. Ruth opens at Landmark Bethesda Row on May 3, and will be streaming on Hulu in June.