Interview: Dr. Ruth and Director Ryan White on “Ask Dr. Ruth” and How It All Started

Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Life is an interesting thing; it has multiple ways of bringing an outcome but somehow chooses the right one. Of course, you may say that the right one may not fit into what happens in the life of those people who are not fortunate enough to live another day.

Whether we want it or not, certain things do happen for reasons for good or bad. But a documentary film that opened in Toronto this Friday, “Ask Dr. Ruth”, shows that no matter what the background of Dr. Ruth was but if not for WWII, or the circumstances she found herself in during that time, the world would never get the chance to meet one of the most charismatic, funny, and intelligent sex therapists who was not afraid to use the so-called provocative language in censored America to talk about sex.

During the Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival that took place in Toronto between April and May, I had the great pleasure to sit down with the legendary Dr. Ruth and director Ryan White to discuss the film and her career.

MOVIEMOVESME: What is the first thing or the most memorable thing that will come to your mind when you get a chance to sit down and just remember about it?

Dr. Ruth: Once I decided that I’ll let Ryan White film a documentary because at first, I had decided no. So much has been written about me, and even filmed, and television. And if I have to take out one thing, I think it’s the early childhood. That I think that with Ryan’s questions, and I didn’t know what, how the animation would turn out. But I knew that you had to do animation because I didn’t have enough pictures from my childhood when I left because of the Nazis. So I think my first thought clearly was, how am I going to do that, read from the letters that I still have from my parents, so that the audience at large would understand why I am doing this?

MOVIEMOVESME: You’ve spent your career giving advice about sex but what’s the best advice on sexuality someone’s ever given you? And for either of you, what would that be?

Dr. Ruth: As you saw in the movie, I did… I went up to look at a book. That’s a true story! Van der Velde is the author. The book called “The Ideal Marriage”. So, I did not know that I would talk about sex from morning to night, but I do remember that I looked at that book. I also remembered that when I went to Switzerland to the orphanage, I was the one to teach the other girls about menstruation. But I didn’t know I would be Doctor Ruth Westheimer, and I didn’t know I would be a famous filmmaker and that we would get a nomination. We don’t have it yet I have these people here who have influence, so I have to say it. I’m not supposed to, just, you know.

 So once I decided after I met Rafael Marmor, the producer, and after I met Ryan, then I knew it would be painful to go back to those years when I left my family. That I would have to say that postcard came for my father from – not concentration camp yet, but a labor camp. That I have to join the group of children to Switzerland so that he can come back to Frankfurt. So I today can say they saved my life twice. I mean, they gave me life twice. Once when I was born and once when he said I have to join. If I had not joined… I had no choice. I did not want to go, but I had no choice with that postcard in my hand. And for some years, I thought if I had stayed in Frankfurt, I could have saved them. Stupid. If I had stayed, I wouldn’t be alive. Not only that, if I had been on the kindertransport to Holland, Belgium, or France, I would not be alive.

After the conference in Evian in 1938, England said, there was a conference, Let’s Save German Joy. The conference failed miserably. The only thing that came out of that conference is let’s at least take the children. Hopefully, the parents then could leave Germany. Pick them up. England, despite the fact that dark clouds, just six months before the outbreak of the war, England took 10,000 Jewish children. Holland, Belgium, France, and Switzerland, 300 each. I was on the boat to Switzerland. If I had been Holland, Belgium, or France, you would never have met me.

The reason I went to the Swiss one is because I came from an Orthodox Jewish background, and the children that went to Switzerland went to Orthodox Jewish children’s homes, that in my particular case became an orphanage.

MOVIEMOVESME: I was struck in the movie, in regards to your work ethic and your ability to just keep doing stuff even at this stage in your life. I was amused by one particular scene – at the desk in your office, there’s a sign that says “A cluttered desk is a sign of genius.” Like organized chaos. Can you talk about it?

Dr. Ruth: When I saw that sign, believe me, I said, “I have to have it.” So it’s very interesting. I’m German Jewish and basically, German Jews are very orderly. Not me. Not me. I’m very disorderly. It’s very clean, I have a cleaning lady twice a week. It’s not dirty, but it’s very disorganized.

I have to tell you. Organized chaos. I’ll tell you a secret. You, come here. Before any of you, any of reporters come, like for example, the New York Times just came, People Magazine is out. In today’s People magazine, three pages. My cleaning, my housekeeper, Skurte.

On days when you journalists come, especially people with photographs, and camera, and television, she takes my tablecloth with all the clutter, she puts it in my bed. So to tell you that, that felt very strange for a German Jew. German Jews are – Germans are very neat. Not me. And I like, when I saw that sign, “A cluttered desk is a sign of genius,” I said, “I have to have it.”

MOVIEMOVESME: Mr. White, what surprised you about Dr. Ruth?

Dr. Ruth: So, I have to tell you about, he’s a director. I was very worried, you have to know that. I was worried about the animation. I didn’t tell him. But I was very worried. He’s going to make me like me in caricature, a Pinocchio, or a Mickey Mouse. Brilliant, the people. I don’t know even if they realized what they did. At the Frankfurt you also had … At the Frankfurt Banhoff, they are showing my mother and grandmother alone, in the pink. The atmosphere is like pinkish. A little bit like here, and it implied loneliness.

 That wasn’t true. All of the other grandmothers and mothers were there. The fathers had been taken to labor camps, not concentration camps. But it permits to talk about some of the things that I am very concerned about today about loneliness. There’s a whole chapter in the new book, Sex for Dummies, about loneliness, for young people, and for older people. So I don’t know if they knew that, but it gives me a wonderful way of saying graphically – look how you can present loneliness. I also think that’s the first my mother and my grandmother hugged.

Ryan White, Director. Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Ryan White:  Well, from a filmmaker’s point of view, I think what was so surprising, you know, she jokes about being a pack rat and cluttered, but how lucky I was that she had kept so much. So the fact that I had those diaries and her parents’ letters to work with? That’s incredible to have her real voice from the ages of 10 until 24 because you know, 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 and over and say, “Tell me this story. Tell me about your first boyfriend. Tell me about loneliness.” I could find real memories and then select those memories and take those to her, and say “What do you remember about this, because I’m going to animate it.”

So I think it allowed her a way to watch the film, and watch her childhood but not have to have relived it with me. Only because the diaries existed. On just a purely surface level, on what was most surprising about Dr. Ruth, hands-down, because once I started making the film, of course, all my friends, all my family wanted to know, like, “What sex advice is she giving you?” Or, how much, like, they all think of her like the dirty lady on television. “How much does she talk about sex all day long?” I have never heard Dr. Ruth talk about sex outside of a professional setting. I have never gotten any sex advice from her. As you see, I don’t know a thing about her sex life, it will always be a mystery. She doesn’t talk about sex with people that are in her day-to-day life. And so… Relationships, for sure. Just this morning I got some relationship advice from her over breakfast, because now that I don’t have a camera, where… I’m allowed to ask repeat questions.

MOVIEMOVESME: How harsh, painful, and heartless can people be during the time of war? You studied to become a sniper but you never had to fire even one bullet. So what I wonder is, did you ever thought of, who would you have become if there was no war?

Dr. Ruth: That’s a very interesting question. Yes. If I had stayed in Frankfurt with my parents, I would have been heavier than you. I would have been a short, heavy grandmother now, talking about matzo ball. That… all of it… I might have become because my father valued that… My mother was not educated. My father valued education so much. That certainly got transmitted to me. No question. And, I might have become a kindergarten teacher. That’s what I did become, my grandmother said. You are so short, you should become a kindergarten teacher. You fit in those little chairs. But I would never, in Frankfurt, I would never have gone to university. I don’t think so. That was not that milieu that I grew up with. I would have been married. I would have had an Orthodox Jewish household. I would have invited you for matzo ball for Passover, but I would not have become Dr. Ruth. That, I’m sure. The other thing that is, like I told you, that is unrealistic, is that if I had stayed, that I could have saved my parents. Nothing. I would have not been here.

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