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Movies

At 90, What Keeps Dr. Ruth as Chipper and Relevant as Ever

A new documentary recaps the life and career of the pioneering sex therapist, mixing good humor with a story of childhood trauma that few have heard before.
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Dr. Ruth reflects on a life marked by happiness and sorrow.

Between finishing her three new books, teaching regular seminars at two different colleges, tweeting regularly to her almost 100,000 followers, and promoting the new documentary about her life, Dr. Ruth Westheimer has little time to slow down these days. Not that she’d want to, anyway.

The 90-year-old’s whirlwind agenda still includes her signature messages about safe and happy sexual relationships for her students and readers. But the movie shares a different story.

Ask Dr. Ruth spends the bulk of its time on the diminutive sex therapist’s background as a Holocaust survivor, and how her traumatic childhood experiences shaped her life and career, and her passion for charitable causes that continues today.

“It’s difficult to talk about orgasms and erections, and then to talk about the Nazis,” Westheimer said during a recent stop in Dallas. “They will see a side of me that they never thought about.”

The German-born Westheimer, of course, didn’t become famous until she was already in her 40s, with the launch of a New York call-in radio show that gained popularity for its honest advice about sex. She later became a household name as a staple of late-night television shows and other media.

“I’ve always been gregarious,” Westheimer said. “I’ve just always been interested in people and their stories.”

The filmmakers use interviews and archival footage to recap those happier times, including her 35-year marriage to her late husband Fred, who died in 1997. Yet they pushed for a different angle.

Although initially reluctant to participate — “I had so many other people doing programs about me. It was enough already,” she said — Westheimer eventually allowed director Ryan White (Good Ol’ Freda) and a crew to follow her around for most of 18 months.

“I know how to keep my private sphere, even as a very public figure,” she said. “Not everyone knows how to do that. Maybe by my nature, I knew how to separate that.”

She took the filmmakers with her family to Switzerland, where she and other Jewish children fled from Germany via the Kindertransport rescue trains during the late 1930s. That was after the Gestapo separated Westheimer from her parents, who she never saw again.

The film also heads to Israel, where Westheimer was once a sniper in the Haganah, at one point being wounded and almost losing both of her feet.

“I didn’t embellish anything. Part of it was very painful,” Westheimer said. “I was willing to show them some of the sadness, because I want to give a message — don’t let anybody tell you it didn’t happen, or that people shouldn’t teach about it.”

Westheimer said she will never return to Auschwitz, where her parents were killed, and has declined invitations to participate in the annual March of the Living because it’s too emotional for her.

Still, supporting survivors remains dear to Westheimer’s heart. She’s on the board at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, where a new exhibit on Auschwitz will open in May. And she is helping to raise funds for the Dallas Holocaust Museum as it prepares to open a new facility later this year.

“We have to be careful about teaching the Holocaust to children,” she said, “but in today’s world, with anti-Semitism creeping up all over, we have to stand up and be counted.”

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