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Ask Dr. Ruth


A documentary portrait chronicling the incredible life of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a Holocaust survivor who became America’s most famous sex therapist. As her 90th birthday approaches, Dr. Ruth revisits her painful past and her career at the forefront of the sexual revolution.

"In the early 1940s, Jewish teenager Karola Siegel, experiencing the first surge of puberty, wrote in her diary: "Everything in nature is so fantastically well-organized. One can't possibly think that anything about it is dirty." Born to Orthodox Jews in Germany, Siegel was sent to Switzerland in 1939 (two months after Kristallnacht), in a train filled with children, all of whom were thrust out of Germany by their parents to safety (it was hoped). The children were all placed in a Swiss orphanage to wait out the war. Siegel stopped receiving letters from her parents in 1941. Terrified of what had happened to them (they were both killed), uncertain about her future, she was still a teenage girl, wondering about sex, writing about it in language far ahead of her time. It should be no surprise that Siegel, after a twisty journey through many countries, ended up in America, eventually becoming a licensed sex therapist known the world over as "Dr. Ruth Westheimer." The philosophy of "Dr. Ruth" was there in that diary entry written by a teenage Jewish refugee. Ryan White's wonderful documentary "Ask Dr. Ruth" shows us how Karola became Ruth, how a "Holocaust orphan" (as she calls herself) became a radio and TV star, still trucking at 90 years of age.

If you didn't experience Dr. Ruth's omnipresence in the '80s, the documentary may seem like it emerges from an alternate universe. Westheimer had a radio show and TV show, and she was a beloved guest of late-night talk show hosts (watching her mortify David Letterman by saying "penis" or "vagina" on air was one of her many charms). She was on the covers of magazines. Full-page spreads in the The New York Times were devoted to her. She was controversial, she was hilarious.

When asked about her popularity, Westheimer hazarded a guess: "I think it has to do with me not being tall and blonde and gorgeous." Under five feet tall, she is a comfortable grandmother-type, speaking with a brisk German accent, wearing conservative suits. She is totally nonjudgmental. People would call into her show with explicit questions about arousal, masturbation, vibrators, you name it. She would launch into her answer, using words like "insert your penis" and "clitoris" without any hesitation. The audience would laugh, or squirm with embarrassment. She never did. One of her favorite things to say is, "There's no such thing as normal." 

The film does a great job of contextualizing the phenom of Dr. Ruth. It's filled with clips (including one of a guy rushing onstage during a talk she gave at Oklahoma State University, an attempt at citizen's arrest for obscenity). During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, she was a formidable and vocal figure, determined to counteract the often-homophobic misinformation out there about the disease. She was very vocal about abortion rights, although she never discussed politics (she still doesn't). She doesn't call herself a "feminist" ("I'm too square for that," she tells her horrified granddaughter) but her advocacy for women—especially to take ownership of their bodies and sexuality—has been a constant." - Sheila O'Malley,

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Directed by: 
Ryan White
Running Time: 

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