What can you say about world renowned sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer that hasn’t already been said? A lot, as it turns out.
The film focuses on her extraordinary life and, as her 90th birthday approaches, Dr. Ruth reflects on her painful past. A survivor of the Holocaust, her career path led her to the forefront of the sexual revolution, making her America's most famous sex therapist.
It’s a poignant and honest look at Dr. Ruth’s life, candidly and beautifully told.
Our Bonnie Laufer sat down with Director Ryan White and Dr. Ruth Westheimer during the Hot Docs festival to find out more about this amazing woman.
ORIGINAL-CIN: You’ve been approached many times to be the subject of a film. Why now and what was it about Ryan White that made you so comfortable to allow him the pleasure?
“That movie reminds me of a song in German that speaks to my life because after World War II, all I could think of was, ‘Where could I go?’ I knew that I would eventually go to Palestine, but I felt like there was no place on earth for a Jew.
“So I had watched that movie and then Rafi told me that he wanted to work with Ryan, who I had never heard of. So, I was sent all the DVD’s of his gripping series The Keepers (a seven-part docuseries on the murder of a nun) and then we met for dinner.
“I watched some of his other work and I thought he was just brilliant. And once I said, ‘Yes, let’s work together on my story,’ I really gave him all the time that was possible. He interviewed me for many days, and sometimes I said to him, ‘Next question.’
“ He was very respectful of telling my story but also not pushing me about things I did not want to discuss. So once I decided, I knew what he would get and what he would not. The one thing I made perfectly clear before we started was he would not know how much money I had and he will never know with whom I am sleeping!”
OC:Ryan, you spent a lot of time with Dr. Ruth. What was the most surprising thing you learned about her?
RYAN WHITE: “From a filmmaker’s point of view, she jokes about being a pack rat and having so much clutter. But you don't’ know how lucky I was that she had actually kept so much stuff.
“It was amazing. The fact that I had her diaries from when she was a young girl, and her parents letters to work with, was just incredible. To have her real voice from the ages of 10 to 24 - because she is pretty closed off from that part of her life.
“So it allowed me to access that part of her life without having to sit her down in front of a camera over and over asking her to recall it. I took select memories from her writings and then went to her to ask what she remembered about those specific events.
“It allowed Dr. Ruth to watch her childhood once the film was completed, but not have had to relive it with me.
“On a purely surface level, of what I learned about Dr. Ruth, all my friends and all my family wanted to know what sex advice she was giving me. They all thought of her as the dirty old lady on television and they wanted to know if she was talking about sex all day long. I can honestly tell you that, as long as I have known her, I have never heard Dr. Ruth talk about sex outside of a professional setting. I have never gotten any sex advice from her, I don’t know a thing about her sex life, she doesn't talk about sex with the people who are in her day to day life.”
OC: Dr. Ruth, What is the most important thing that you remembered about your life that stands out for you in the documentary?
DR. RUTH: “Once I decided to let Ryan film this documentary, I think if I had to take out one thing it would be the early childhood memories. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out.
“When Ryan told me that he wanted to animate my early life, I was quite opposed at first. I knew that he had to do it some way, because I didn’t have enough pictures and footage to depict my life properly.
“So, when he suggested that we animate that part of my life, leaving for Switzerland to escape the Nazis, I was worried that it would be cartoonish. But it turned out brilliantly.”
OC: You’ve spent your life giving advice about sex. But what is the best advice about sexuality that anyone has ever given you?
DR. RUTH: “As you see in the movie, when i was a young girl I found a book that my parents had hidden on a top shelf of a bookcase about sex and sexuality. No one ever sat me down to discuss issues of sexuality.
“Then when I was 10 and was sent to an orphanage in Switzerland as part of the Kindertransport at the beginning of WWII. It was the last time I ever saw my parents. At the orphanage, I was actually the one who taught the other girls about menstruation.”
OC: This documentary has really stuck with me. I laughed but also cried – a lot. I believe that it is a very important film, especially for the younger generation to watch, so that the Holocaust will not be denied or forgotten.
DR. RUTH: “I’m glad to hear that you laughed and cried. That’s really the main goal of the film.
“I agree, the main goal for me is to make sure young people, Millennials, see what happened; that we can say, “Never again,” and that I can stand up and say to Holocaust deniers, ‘You’re wrong, there was a Holocaust.’ Not just against Jews, against homosexuals, disabled people, Gypsies. I am pleased that we show this in the documentary. That was very important to me. “
OC:It’s clear that you have quite an incredible work ethic, even at this stage in your life you just won’t stop! In one scene we see at the desk in your office there is a sign that says ‘a cluttered desk is a sign of genius.’
So in this age of decluttering is that actually one of the keys to your success? Basically we should all just stay cluttered to achieve success?
DR.RUTH: “When I first saw that sign i said I had to have it! It’s interesting because I am German-Jewish and basically German jews are very orderly.
“Well I can tell you right now, not me! I have a very clean home, my cleaning lady comes to me twice a week. But I am the first to admit that I have a lot of clutter.
“I’ll tell you a secret! Before any reporters comes to my home to do an interview with me, my housekeeper, Skute, takes my tablecloth with all of the clutter on the table, she gathers it all up into a bundle and dumps it on my bed. In the film I actually told Ryan that he was not allowed to go into my bedroom and THAT is the reason why!”
OC:You speak very much to the point and say exactly what you want to say. If someone asks you for advice you give it as straightforwardly as possible, which is a very hard thing for a lot of people to do.
When you started doing your radio show and television how did you have to adapt to what you were allowed and not allowed to say?
DR. RUTH: “On radio, there were actually seven words that you were not supposed to say. In the film we point out that my television producer at the time made it clear that I was not going to adhere to that rule, because no words could be off limits as far as i was concerned.
“There was no way that I was going to participate in a program if I couldn’t speak openly and honestly with the audience. If I can't say ‘orgasm’ or ‘erection,’ then how was I going to talk about issues of sexuality?
“So, there was never a discussion about it. I never said any of these words to titillate. They were said in the context of my work and in order to make my point, and I think that is why I was so successful.
“Plus I have to give thanks to Hugh Hefner because he had an organization dedicated to free speech. This organization made a difference for so many people at that time.”
OC: What are your some of your wise words of advice?
DR. RUTH: “I tell young people that you do not have to like your mentor, and you don’t have to become best friends. You just have to take what they can teach you in order to be a professional.
“A lot of people believe that a mentor needs to be your best friend, and i say no way. A mentor has to be somebody that somebody like me respects, and had to work with for several years.
“That person has to give you assurance that what you say is correct so that you can further your career. I never was embarrassed to say, ‘I don’t know,’ and I think that in the end that helped me. Always ask questions and never be afraid or embarrassed to speak up when you don’t understand or know something.
“I would get many questions over the years that I could not answer right away. I would be honest with them and say, ‘I don’t know.’ But I would look it up, and even if it took me a week I would get back to them with an answer.”
OC: There was a moment in the film where we see people slipping away into their cars to tune in your radio show. But of course today we have so much access to information at a click of a button. How has technology changed your job over the years?
RW: “I just want to jump in here, because this is something I wish I could have touched on in the film. I didn’t know until just a few days ago that a big part of Dr. Ruth’s success in 1981-82 was because the Walkman was being developed.
“This allowed people to listen to Dr. Ruth privately and secretly, after they would record the show on a cassette and then listen to it. Or if they had a radio on their Walkman… well enough said.”
DR. RUTH: “Their parents didn’t know. I have to tell you though, kids on Sunday evenings did not have be told to take a shower and go to bed. At 10 p.m., they were in bed with that Walkman. For me, the Walkman was fantastic because their parents had no idea.”
RW: “Before the Walkman, they had to play it through speakers, so having the Walkman was a huge deal for so many people.”
OC: Have you ever thought about who you would have become if there had not been a war?
DR. RUTH: “ I would have stayed in Frankfurt with my parents. I would have been a short heavy grandmother talking about matzoh balls.
“My father valued education, so who knows? I might have become a kindergarten teacher, but I would have never have gone to University and I would have never have become Dr. Ruth.”
Ask Dr. Ruth. Directed by Ryan White. Starring Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Opens Friday, May 17 in Toronto and Vancouver.