Greetings again from the darkness. Your impression of Dr. Ruth Westheimer might be that of a little old lady who offers up entertaining segments on talk shows, or maybe even more extreme, that of a carnival-type sideshow meant to shock with its taboo topics. Director Ryan White (THE CASE AGAINST 8) profiles the now 90 year old (she turns 91 next week) icon and we are treated to a wonderful story of a fascinating self-made woman.
Karola Ruth Siegel was born in Germany and her parents shipped her to an orphanage in Switzerland at age 10 to protect her from the Nazis and the war. Though her parents did not survive the war, young Karola did and director White allows the adult woman, now known as Ruth Westheimer, to retrace the steps that resulted in her becoming a world renowned sex therapist, speaker, educator and author. Some of the filming takes place inside her Washington Heights, NY apartment … her home for the past 54 years.
Animation is used to fill in the gaps of her childhood, as a narrator reads passages from the young girl’s diary. Her own words connect two worlds – that of a lost child and those of today’s strong woman whose work has impacted so many. Sure, Dr. Ruth has her critics, but she was a solitary voice of help and knowledge at a time “Sexually Speaking” (the name of her first radio show) was still not done in public. This tiny (4’7”) woman with German-accented English spoke directly to her audience (many who chuckled or turned crimson with embarrassment) about matters that were causing much emotional turmoil – matters that were killing relationships. She was truly a life saver for many.
Educated at Columbia and Cornell, Ruth earned her Ph.D. and became a licensed sex therapist. It was her matter-of-fact delivery of facts and insight that made her so popular on radio and TV. Now, in her 90’s, she still teaches two classes, makes appearances as a guest lecturer, writes books (published more than 60), writes a regular newspaper column, and travels the globe entertaining and educating young and old alike. This is a busy, focused woman.
Dr. Ruth was a calm voice in the storm of the initial AIDS/HIV epidemic as she reserved judgment and dispensed facts, while encouraging care and empathy. We learn she has espoused speaking of politics in public and doesn’t much believe in “normal” as a description to be applied to anything. Pierre Lehu, her long-time Director of Communications admits they speak by phone 25-30 times per day. Most people half her age live daily lives much less busy.
Director White opens the film with Dr. Ruth asking Alexa if she’s going to get a boyfriend. Her playful side is still evident, but quickly shifts into all-business mode when required. We hear from her daughter and son, as well as her 3 grandkids. We learn of her 3 husbands, and the situation with each. Did you know she was trained as a sniper in the Jewish Underground Army? Well there’s a segment on that. She was a rare single mother in the U.S. in 1958 and transformed herself into “Grandma Freud”. By the end, we know this spirited woman would have survived and been successful in whatever path she chose. Many are thankful she still walks that path.