Ask Dr Ruth

ASK DR RUTH. US, 2019. Directed by Ryan White.100 miinutes. Rated M (Sexual references)

Ask Dr Ruth – and they did; and they still do.

This benign portrait of the sex therapist celebrity, Dr Ruth Westheimer, culminates in a celebration of her 90th birthday. There are quite a number of teasers during the opening credits, clips of Dr Ruth from radio and television, especially in the 1980s when she made her breakthrough. The questions are provocative. Dr Ruth’s stances, at least at that time, were also provocative. She was very frank and direct in her opinions, in her language, in encouraging people to speak openly and without embarrassment about sexual issues.

But, the film is also the story of story of her life. And, quite a story it is, especially in her early years.

She was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1928. She came from an Orthodox Jewish family. When she was 10, and her father arrested and sent to a labour camp, her parents decided that she should leave for Switzerland, for safety and education. She spent the war years in an orphanage, the orphans looked down on, the girls intended to be housemaids while the boys had an education. This had a strong effect on her. Zeal for education became all-consuming.

Her early post-war years took her to Israel and sniper duty. Eventually, she set sail for the United States where she found a home, married three times, had children, studying at Cornell and Columbia, became involved in Family Planning movements, eventually being invited to speak on radio when some of her colleagues were reluctant. She was an instant hit.

At 4’7”, diminutive but an outgoing energetic dynamo, she fielded questions on sexual issues, was guest on many television shows (many clips in this documentary), appeared on some television series, was feted around the United States – as she still is.

While there are many clips from the past, there are also sequences where she searches for the records of her parents’ death, visits Switzerland again, visits Israel again, meets old friends from the past who throw light on her life in those days and the impression she made. There are several interview pieces with her children and grandchildren.

One of the most interesting features of the film is animation, quite striking, to illustrate her early years, the situations  and the characters, with voice-over from her diaries.

Some criticisms of Dr Ruth are voiced, especially that she was reckless in giving free information and advice based on limited evidence from enquirers. And, not everybody would agree on her stances on sexual issues, on abortion. However, she has the courage of her convictions, speaks out, and has contributed to, at least in the United States, a less inhibited approach to issues of sexuality and public discussion.

As a character, she is lively and generally infectious.

Rialto                                                Released December 5th

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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