Because so much of what she espoused in the ’80s and ’90s became the truth as we know it, it’s easy to take Ruth Westheimer’s radicalism for granted. At a time when homosexuality was vilified (with its detractors using the AIDS crisis as proof), she encouraged acceptance. She was long one of the few mainstream voices explicitly advocating for women’s pleasure. When sex had barely dented the national dialogue, she was hosting a syndicated radio show that became a sensation and served to ensure that what consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms was completely okay.
Ask Dr. Ruth, which is now streaming on Hulu, serves as a good reminder of Dr. Ruth’s impact. Directed by Ryan White (The Keepers, The Case Against 8), the bio-doc zips through not only Dr. Ruth’s career but her early childhood, during which she fled Nazi Germany and was ultimately orphaned when her parents were killed in the Holocaust. Throughout, Dr. Ruth is game to share her life, but only on her terms (“The director got only what I wanted him to have,” she recently told Rolling Stone). Ryan White told Jezebel, though, that Dr. Ruth was a breeze to work with. An edited and condensed transcript of our recent interview with the director is below.
JEZEBEL: Why did you want to profile Dr. Ruth?
RYAN WHITE: I was born in 1981, and that’s the year that she blew up with Sexually Speaking on New York radio. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s with Dr. Ruth all over the airwaves, but I was a child or young adolescent during her heyday. I always kind of saw her as the funny old grandma on television saying things I shouldn’t be listening to. And then Dr. Ruth’s television career for the most part ended in the mid-’90s, when talk shows became more sensational. She wouldn’t go in that direction, so she decided to go off the air.
After the mid-’90s, I think I didn’t really know what Dr. Ruth was doing. I got a phone call a couple of years ago from a producer, Rafael Marmor, and he said he was walking Dr. Ruth and she refused making a documentary for many decades, but that he felt she might be interested and would I like to have dinner with her. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. I think anybody would. At dinner, I totally fell in love with her.
The Los Angeles Times reported that you have a Jewish boyfriend, and I wonder if Ruth’s historically gay-affirming stance affected your decision to make this.
For sure. I would have been interested in her either way. As a pop culture figure, I was fascinated by her. Finding out whaat she was doing during the AIDS crisis, finding out how sex-positive she was about gay sex, getting to see all of the television shows in the mid-’80s where she was answering callers about gay sex, just as she was straight sex… Dr. Ruth trained under Helen Singer Kaplan, but at that Cornel clinic, they were only studying straight sex. I found out that she didn’t feel that was right, so she began volunteering at [The Joy of Gay Sex author] Charles Silverstein’s clinic in New York in the late ’70s because she felt like she didn’t know enough about gay and lesbian sex. She worked for free under him and trained under him, learning sex therapy specifically for gay people. So being from the LGBTQ community, and then seeing how she impacted so many people in my community directly, the generations that are older than me, but indirectly my generation, it was important to me to bring her back into the limelight in that way and give her the credit she’s due.
It seems like at some points, she was directing the movie, like when she was telling you to get how fast she can walk or that you ask stupid questions. What was the power dynamic like? Was she easy to work with?
The easiest to work with. That’s definitely part of Dr. Ruth’s personality, that she’s a pitbull. She’s opinionated. I often joke that we should be sharing the director credit. When she finally decided to make this film, I was saying, “I don’t know if I have the time right now.” She was calling me and saying, “We should do this together.” One of her pitches of herself was, “I promise you I’m not a diva or prima donna in any way.” I’ve heard that before from celebrities that I’ve worked with, even wonderful ones, but I think most famous people or wealthy people have a certain kind of edge that regard people I work with and am following in documentaries don’t. Dr. Ruth was probably the most humble and grounded documentary subject you could ever imagine. I had to beg her to take business class tickets places. She’s so short, she’s fine in economy, and I’m like, “Well, Dr. Ruth, if you get to fly business, then I get to fly business with you.” That’s just what she’s like.
As far as the filmmaking, I’ve never really for the most part been present in any of my previous documentaries. You might hear me ask a question sometimes, but me as a director and my crew are not usually a part of my documentaries. They’re not usually that self-reflexive. I was kind of battling that at the beginning. Not with her specifically but in the edit room with my team because they were including a lot of me. I’m not on camera, but my voice or my presence in the scene. They eventually convinced me. They were like, “Look, these are the most revealing parts of Dr. Ruth’s personality, that she’s never not going to break the fourth wall and she’s going to be interacting with you and the entire crew nonstop shows authentically who she is.” I eventually gave up and accepted the idea of including that. I think in the opening scene, she interacts with five different people behind the camera: my producer, my sound man, me, and two different cameramen.
Dr. Ruth says, “I’m a very private person. You will never know how much money I have, and you’ll never know with whom I’m sleeping, either.” Did you ask those questions? What were the boundaries set?
I would ask questions and she would tell me, “Next question,” and that it was none of my business a lot. I didn’t ask her questions about her sex life, besides in a joking manner. It became clear to me early on that I think the most surprising thing about Dr. Ruth is that she virtually never talks about sex. I don’t think I ever heard her talk about sex, unless I was filming her in a professional setting in some way. People will come up and ask her questions and she’ll be polite and give them short answers. But in her personal life, I’ve never heard her talk about sex. Relationships, she talks about ad nauseam, and she’ll want to know everything about everyone’s relationships, but she never pries and asks sexual questions.
As far as her wealth, I would ask, and she would shut me down. She’s a very private person when it comes to that. One of the most endearing things about Dr. Ruth and why I fell in love with her right away was finding out that she lived in that same apartment complex for 55 years and chose to never leave. That apartment predates her history in sex therapy and Planned Parenthood. That was her apartment when she was just coming to New York City and just trying to get her life off the ground as a single mom, not speaking any English. The fact that she stayed there, those humble roots—I think she drove a Camry till she stopped driving 10 years ago—I found very endearing. But she would never talk about her net worth.
What do you make of the fact that she won’t talk about politics, yet her work is unquestionably political or her refusal to label herself a feminist when she exhibits so many beliefs that could objectively be labeled feminist?
I think it depends on how you define “political.” Obviously, Dr. Ruth has intersected so many parts of the sexual revolution that you could see as political or unnecessarily political or having been politicized by certain groups, whereas she doesn’t see these issues as political issues; she sees them as human issues. Dr. Ruth, of course, has a political point of view. I’ve had political conversations with her. She votes in every election, even local elections in New York. She takes being an American very seriously because she is refugee, an American immigrant. But she has never wanted it to color her career as a sex and relationship therapist because she hasn’t wanted to alienate potential clients or people with questions who need help that might be of a different political or religious persuasion, per se. That being said, since the film has come out, I have seen her be very vocal about the Trump administration’s stance on immigration, specifically children being taken away from their parents at the border because, I’ve heard her say thousands of times, “That’s what happened to me.” She’s very vocal about that and I’ve heard her be very vocal about the administration’s threat to Planned Parenthood.
Your documentary has been acclaimed, and I found it extremely charming, but the slight bit of criticism I did see about it was the notion, as mentioned in The Hollywood Reporter review, that it indulges in hero worship. I wonder what you make of that.
I think it’s easy to say that, but I searched every archive because I thought Dr. Ruth would have been a very controversial person in the ’80s or ’90s. You have a few instances in the film, like the man who tries to place her under citizen’s arrest, and there’s one psychologist criticizing her. But if you go through the entire archive about Dr. Ruth, it’s very difficult to find anybody who was highly critical of her in any way. I think that’s the brilliance of Dr. Ruth that could probably never be created today. This woman, who was so on the cutting edge and should have been ruffling the feathers of the entire country with the way she was explicitly speaking about sex, especially parts of sex that were controversial at the time, that she was able to navigate that in a way that was somewhat all-pleasing. I wouldn’t call it hero worship. I would just say that there was this woman who at the height of her career was able to navigate things in a way where she became an American treasure. And almost everyone agrees with that. It’s hard to find people, especially from the time. Even people who disagree with her politically on the sexual issues love Dr. Ruth.