A lover of life

Dr. Ruth Westheimer takes readers on her journey from prewar Frankfurt to celebrity sex therapist grandma.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer (photo credit: REUTERS)
Dr. Ruth Westheimer
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the famous 87-year-old sex therapist, almost insists you adore her; and it is hard not to be impressed by her upbeat resilience.
At the tender age of 10, she was sent on a Kindertransport from her Orthodox Jewish home in Frankfurt, Germany, to a Swiss orphanage; she never saw her beloved parents again.
She still remembers the train ride to Switzerland, when she noticed that the children around her were crying in distress.
Dr. Ruth – originally Karola Ruth Siegel – began to sing loudly, and the other children followed suit. We get the sense that a survival instinct made of steel, anger and righteousness was already in evidence, and never wavered. She simply was not going down.
The problem with her hard-won bravado is it seems to have prevented her from the ability to truly speculate about her life. In The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life and Joie de Vivre, her narrative is often choppy, distracted and without nuance.
The joie de vivre she professes feels hollow, and her narrative is filled with far too many musings about her own celebrity.
She doesn’t really talk about her three marriages, or raising her two children, or her grandchildren, or what it was like to be a feminist trailblazer before such language even existed. She admits that she has had to spend a lot of her life blocking out things too painful to face.
She confesses sadly, “How can my head be filled with such sad memories, and yet I am still able to make people laugh? It’s not always easy, but the secret is to compartmentalize the various sections of your brain.” But the result of this compartmentalization is that her advice often borders on the banal.
She seems oblivious to the psychological effects she has had on those closest to her. It’s almost feels as if Dr. Ruth became psychologically stuck in time, and is still in many ways the precocious pre-adolescent girl she once was before her family imploded. She revels in attention of any sort and accepts endless invitations to parties, events and parades, where she is lavished with the attention and praise she still longs for.
Dr. Ruth’s career took off when she took the helm of a Manhattan radio show during the 1980s. Listeners, unaccustomed to hearing sex spoken about in such a straightforward manner, were comforted by her no-nonsense advice.
She would advise women to take control of orchestrating their own sexual satisfaction; she suggested couples engage in mutual fantasy fulfillment to spice up their sex life. Even pornography was OK in small doses.
She was not against drinking in moderation as a way to reduce stress and inhibitions.
But she was wary of one-night stands; believing that most people fare better having sex in a loving relationship with one significant other, preferably their marital partner.
She told older people they could continue to enjoy sex if they altered their behavior.
She advised them to have sex earlier in the day, when they had more strength.
She was offended by Jewish comedians who continued to make jokes about many Jewish women’s aversion to sex, insisting it was not true even though it seemed to garner an easy laugh. She was proud of the fact that the Jewish religion has never viewed sex as a sin, and in fact stresses its importance between married loving partners.
In sync with the rest of her generation, she refused to speak about her own sex life – which she viewed as a private matter.
She believes if a woman or a man has a one-night stand, they should not tell their spouse, for it will do more harm than good. If either partner is disappointed in some aspect of their lover’s physique, they should keep it to themselves.
In addition, she warns against talking to one’s mate about past lovers; and if someone’s thoughts wander to fantasizing about someone else during the sex act, that information should remain private.
She believes this over-sharing can only wreak havoc on a couple trying to maintain a healthy sex life.
Interestingly enough, she believes it is not sex that dooms most relationships, but rather intellectual boredom. If someone loses interest in their partner, they lose interest in the sexual relationship.
Dr. Ruth has led an incredible life, beginning with her own miraculous survival; she fought for everything she got.
She began her working life in New York at Planned Parenthood, then attended Columbia’s Teachers College where she earned her doctorate. She later trained under Helen Singer Kaplan, a pioneer in the field of sex therapy.
No one came to her or sought her out.
Even her radio show, which launched the books, television appearances and college lectures that were to follow, were the result of her own wits, charm and bravado.
Still, it pains me to think about her now, a widow in Manhattan – where she has remained in the same apartment she acquired when she arrived over 50 years ago. She has spent years collecting objects, and has enormous difficulty throwing anything away. She was forced a few years ago to hire a professional organizer to help her arrange her possessions, and convince her to part with the ones that were less significant to her.
From her original family home, she has only a small towel that her grandmother gave her, which she keeps tucked in a drawer. In full view, however, are precious dollhouses she has had custom-made, with tiny figurines inside them. She admits to playing with them frequently; a heartbreaking yet imaginative game where she pretends she is able to control everything that happens to her mother, father and grandmother, so that they can remain safe forever.
They all died at Auschwitz, something she rarely speaks about. One can’t help but be shaken by the grief she has tried so valiantly to keep hidden from everyone, even herself.
Last year, in an act of wondrous remembrance, she attended the Orthodox wedding in the Bronx of Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt, the great-grandson of the woman who arranged Dr. Ruth’s rescue from Germany along with several other Jewish children. Grinning throughout the ceremony, she commented joyfully, “I can see they do not need a sex therapist. I can just tell by the way he looks at her and she looks at him.”