Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Dr. Ruth Westheimer answers most of your questions about her – except about sex.

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Ryan White
Produced by Rafael Marmor, Ryan White, Jessica Hargrave and Christopher Leggett
Released in theaters by Magnolia 5/3/2019; streaming on Hulu 6/1/2019
USA. 100 min. Not Rated
In English, German and Hebrew with English subtitles

For decades, Dr. Ruth Westheimer has been voluble and frank on radio and TV talk shows, writing, among her three dozen books, an autobiography for adults, a graphic novel version for kids, and she was the subject of two short documentaries and a play. So you may think you know all about her, or maybe you’re only aware of the public pieces of her life. Or you were too young to know how her German-accented, grandmotherly presence was a media phenomenon in the ’80s and ’90s for genially talking about and answering any question about sex. Ask Dr. Ruth will answer most of your questions about her.

Producer Rafael Marmor proposed to mark her 90th birthday with a feature documentary. What convinced her to cooperate was seeing the 2013 documentary he produced No Place On Earth, because that captured the sense of her childhood amidst the Holocaust, probably the least known aspect of her life and the most affecting part of this bio-doc.

Luckily for director Ryan White, and us, the former Karola Ruth Siegel is a pack rat, and she has saved photographs, diaries, and letters, that are supplemented by archival footage for context. Starting from her comfortable Frankfurt home as a beloved only child with religious parents and grandmother – until Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, shattered her family like the broken glass it’s named for. Her father was arrested, and her mother saved the ten-year-old girl’s life by getting her onto a Kindertransport train on January 5, 1939 to a Swiss orphanage. In her post-Tribeca Film Festival premiere talk with Prof. Annette Insdorf, she exclaimed why she’s taking a political position for the first time -- against children being separated from their families, because she too experienced that rupture.

Her loneliness amidst Dickensian conditions is well-communicated through stark animation by Neko Productions. When letters from her parents stopped coming in 1941, her relationships with the other young refugees became vital to her – and she fondly greets several she is still friends with today. While of course there’s chuckling interest in how she explained the facts of life to them and experienced her first kiss, what is most vivid in her memories is that the shrew in charge of the orphanage did not permit the girls to attend school, because they had to spend their days cleaning the facility. So Ruth’s first boyfriend would bring home his textbooks, and sneak them to her. She then would spend all night reading that day’s assignments, a gritty determination for further education she would continue.

When no family members claimed her after the war, she headed to then-Palestine at 17 years old with other orphaned Jewish teens. The director accompanies her to Israel, walks through the kibbutz where she settled (and flirted), and where she recovered from severe wounds while fighting in the 1948 War. Apparently for the first time, White also convinces her to go into the archives at Yad Vashem the Memorial to the Holocaust to search for confirmation of her family’s fate. Even some 70 years later, the findings are emotional for her – and increases her fury at Holocaust deniers. (She is combining her promotion of the film with bringing attention to the Auschwitz exhibit at Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, where she serves on the board.)

Following her post-war boyfriend to Paris, where he was studying at the Sorbonne, she learned of a special exam for survivors to matriculate without a high school diploma. Her face lights up much more at the joy of studying psychology for her degree at the university than about her first husband. Similarly, when she accompanied him to the U.S. for his training in 1956, despite the arrival of a child and little income, she was thrilled to be able to get her Masters degree. She’s full of anecdotes about how she divorced and struggled financially as a single mother, but is happy to skip to meeting and marrying the late Fred Westheimer, the lasting love of her life for over 30 years, with lots of photos of their shared joy in skiing and for their two children, as she re-visits most of the New York City locations she discusses. (She’s lived in the same apartment through all these years.)

Refusing any salacious tidbits about any of her lovers or husbands (and her son says she did not do well at teaching him the facts of life), what was more key in her life was working at Planned Parenthood. She not only saw the need for the sex therapy she was studying under her pioneering mentor Helen Singer Kaplan at Cornell’s medical school, but she also researched the effectiveness of contraception use for her PhD thesis at Columbia.

Her outreach on the need for sex education and contraception brought her to the attention of a New York radio station’s community affairs manager, who tells of trying to find someone to do a Sunday night call-in show about sex, and what a hit Dr. Ruth quickly became. “Sexually Speaking” began airing in 1980, and she was the first in the media to use biologically correct terms for genitalia and what one can do with them. Her grandson tells of coming back to his college dorm late from the library and hearing his bubbe’s accented voice coming out of every room. (Though the director has said he thinks the rise of private listening via the Walkman contributed to the show’s success.) The radio show went national and led to her TV program, which had more restrictions that made her uncomfortable. With the rise of randy cable television, I recall an MTV show, for example, that attempted to compete, but was annoyingly leering and mired in fetishes, which just accentuated how much more calmly informative and helpful Dr. Ruth was.

While the extensive montage of references to her in popular culture, especially about her 4’ 7” height, gets a bit silly, her gay fans (including the director) let her know how wonderful she was during the years when people were afraid to come out and in calming fears of AIDS. (White has said in interviews he couldn’t fit in her volunteer work in the 1970’s at Charles Silverstein’s LGBT counseling center to learn sex therapy for gay men and women.) Yet in all the audio and video clips showing how uniquely sympathetic she was to callers about sensitive topics like abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, and so forth, her actual advice isn’t heard, maybe because she feels therapy should really be individual and private.

Though she is seen continuing to teach college classes, there is no discussion of what has changed in her professional recommendations over the many years she’s been a leading and reassuring figure in the field she significantly popularized. But we do get a spirited tour of much of what she has experienced and done during her long and remarkable life.

Originally posted 6/1/2019 (Preview at 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, with additional commentary.)

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
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Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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