Dr. Ruth Westheimer has led a life as epic and full of tragedy and triumph as any fictional narrative. Americans know her best as a famous sex therapist — the woman behind radio program Sexually Speaking, a handful of television shows, and a lifetime dedicated to de-stigmatizing sex with her frank tackling of once taboo subjects.
But as fascinating and titillating as her dedication to sex education and therapy is, Dr. Ruth’s story is even deeper and richer than one might imagine. The new documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, which premieres June 1 on Hulu, seeks to give audiences an understanding of the extraordinary life that shaped this one-of-a-kind woman but falls short when it comes to digging beyond mere biography.
Westheimer is a Holocaust survivor, a university professor, a sex therapist with a PhD, a television sensation, a best-selling author, a pioneer of a sexual revolution still on-going, a one-time single mother, a doting grandmother, a former Haganah sniper, and a woman who married three times, the third to the love of her life.
She’s an endlessly fascinating figure, from her stance on calling herself a feminist (she refuses, much to her granddaughter’s chagrin) to her frank, matter-of-fact attitudes toward sex to her humility about the millions of people she’s helped over the years. Ryan White’s documentary seeks to peel back the layers on Dr. Ruth, taking us into her story from her earliest years through to her 90th birthday celebration.
The documentary is relatively straightforward in its approach, telling Dr. Ruth’s story chronologically, as she narrates the events of her life, with additional interviews from her colleagues and family. It uses animation to color in the details of Ruth’s childhood, spinning her memories of her earlier years into a softly drawn approximation of her recollections. While Ruth’s story is powerful, often heartbreaking, these animated portions are the weakest part of the film. And when so much of her story is told through her own photographs and archival footage, the tactic feels even more out of joint.
The documentary is at its best when it goes beyond the mere facts of Dr. Ruth’s life (though they’re intriguing and worthy of coverage) to moments of contemplation and revelation. Whether it’s Ruth reflecting on the details of her three marriages with her characteristic frankness or her family unpacking her political stances, it offers up insight into a woman who helped so many others truly know themselves.
The film also spends a good chunk of time on Ruth’s professional life – just how she came to be the Dr. Ruth the world fell in love with, how provocative and groundbreaking her approach to talking about sex was, and how she saved lives, from addressing the AIDS crisis in its earliest days to helping many people feel less alone. But the doc’s heart lies in one simple truth that emerges through White’s framing of her story – that Dr. Ruth’s compassion and capacity for empathy stemmed from her own deep loss. In a quest to feel less alone in the world herself, she ended up doing the same for millions of others along the way – and this film is a compelling, stirring testament to that fact even if it offers up less insight about what makes her tick from the woman herself than one might crave. B