In Ryan White’s breezy documentary “Ask Dr. Ruth,” the 90-year-old Ruth Westheimer asks a fair share of the questions. “Are you hungry?” “Are you sure you’re not hungry?” And with her grandmotherly credentials thus verified, she’s free to turn to her Alexa and ask it to find her a boyfriend. Alas, the app demurs. “If she doesn’t know that, what good is she?” the doctor tuts of the AI program. Not good enough to do what Westheimer did: leap from being a licensed sex therapist with a risqué 15-minute radio call-in show into a national sensation with six TV programs, more than three dozen books, and countless talk-show appearances in which she’s used her no-nonsense charm to, among other things, needle Arsenio Hall into saying the word “vagina.” Dr. Ruth denies she’s political — she even says she’s not a feminist — but that moment on Arsenio was a political act. Men needed to recognize female pleasure, especially men like Hall who constantly alluded to the male organ on his show, yet squirmed when Westheimer changed the focus.
Dr. Ruth said the words. She even described the positions. And she did it without blanching or making the caller feel embarrassed. She wasn’t the first woman to speak openly about sex, as White insists, skipping over Cosmopolitan’s Helen Gurley Brown. But she was the first to speak openly to that degree to everyone, even the men who dialed up feeling insecure about their size of their penis. (One caller in the doc frets about scaring partners with one that’s too big, though the film rarely lets us hear the doctor’s answers.)
When it comes to Dr. Ruth’s career, White is most interested in the early years of her notoriety, and for good reason. Her frankness was so startling that an Oklahoma man attempted to put her under citizen’s arrest. And her rise to fame came at the same time as the AIDS epidemic — then called “sex cancer” — which meant she had to parry panicked questions about whether the disease could be caught from sharing sodas. Westheimer did her best. Where she was exceptional was in her refusal to stigmatize homosexuality. Whatever consenting people did in the privacy of their own home was their business, a position she championed more than a decade before acceptance was mainstream.
In the film, Dr. Ruth explains that she rejects the idea of any group as “subhuman”; the reason is personal. Half of the documentary is spent tracing how Karola Ruth Siegel, of Frankfort, Germany, became the only member of her Jewish family to survive the Holocaust. When she was 10, her mother put her on a kindertransport to a Swiss orphanage. She never saw her parents again, though she still has every letter they sent until communication abruptly stopped.
Dr. Ruth’s journey from scrubbing shoes in Switzerland to becoming an American icon includes three husbands and a stint as an Israeli sniper. Her Washington Heights apartment, the same one she’s lived in for 54 years, is packed with photographs and papers and old diaries. She’s sentimental, but not saccharine, about her past. Trauma appears to have forged her into a soldier of optimism — 4 feet seven inches of steely good cheer. (Her daughter admits she’s only seen her mom cry once.) Yet, White makes the mistake of animating young Ruth as an adorable moppet with teary lights in her eyes. And it’s documentary malpractice that the director has excepts of his subject’s journals read in a generic American accent: Wertheimer’s distinctive, trilling croak isn’t just part of her charm, it’s her heritage.
The irony at the core of the Dr. Ruth persona is that the maverick who made the bedroom public is herself incredibly private, and while she encourages women to get intimate with their bodies, she’s not in touch with her own emotions. Still, she is vocal about respecting boundaries, and White acquiesces, trusting that the facts of Westheimer’s life say plenty about her peppy workaholism. At her most personal, Dr. Ruth tells White that as a survivor, she feels an obligation to live out loud. This refugee who wasn’t even allowed to attend high school managed to earn a doctorate and grab a microphone — and she has no intention of letting go.