An Interview with Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Jacob DeCarli ‘22 and Lianna Brown ‘22

The Dickinsonian sat down with Poitras Gleim recipient Dr. Ruth Westheimer to discuss her radio show, her Hulu documentary, World War II and her life. She discusses how she thinks young people should approach sex and how her radio show in 1980 has led to her career in sex education. The full interview is below. 

The Dickinsonian: What made you want to speak more about your experience during the Holocaust and WW2 in recent years?

Ruth Westheimer: It’s not that I suddenly decided that I wanted to talk about it, I have always said that I am not a Holocaust survivor because I was not in a camp, I’m an orphan of the Holocaust because I was sent to Switzerland at the age of 10 ½, and stayed in a children’s home that became an orphanage. I once did a longitudinal study about the children who were with me in the children’s home that became an orphanage. Something very interesting is that none of the 50 children that I followed for my Master’s, never committed suicide, none became clinically depressed, and none of them really fell by the wayside, and the reason for that—my hypothesis—is that the early childhood years, early socialization of all of these children, including me, were in a loving family for the first years of their lives, and then what happened after that was very traumatic and upsetting, but it did not make them pathological diseased or psychologically damaged. The lesson to be taught from that for you young people is how important it is to have caring adults around you, and then lately, now that I’m going to be 92…when the filmmaker said he wants to do a film I said ‘no thank you I just did a BBC [interview]’ then he sent me a movie of his. The title of that movie was No Place on Earth— so that was certainly my story. As a Jewish child, there was no place on Earth for people like me and I looked at that film and said ‘I’ll do it.’

On her Hulu Documentary

RW: I want your audience to go on Hulu and watch the film Ask DR. Ruth. It didn’t win an Academy [Award] but it still might get an Emmy nomination. It was nominated by the audience, and the audience loved it. I’m not upset because the academy this year gave awards to movies about diversity. [T]he documentary that won—it was Korean film. I called Hulu and consoled them that they didn’t get nominated, that they didn’t win. But I like the film very much. I think it’s wonderfully crafted and beautiful. 

TD: Could you speak about the letters you exchanged with family while living in Switzerland during the war?

RW: Fortunately for me, because I was separated from my family, I kept those letters. This amazes me because I’m not an orderly person…fortunately I kept all of the letters, that I did get until they [my parents] were deported to Auschwitz, that I did get in a folder, and for the documentary I could translate if [from German to English] and I could also say how terrible it was, not just for me but for the other children, when the letters stopped coming. That’s when we all realized all of the horrible things that were happening. I have a washcloth that has the letters KS in it—that was my name Karola—and in Israel at the time, they didn’t want German names when people came to Palestine. So, I took my middle name [Ruth]. I always keep the ‘K’–anytime I do a book, I keep the ‘K’ to keep me rooted in my past. I knew that all of the things would happen—I didn’t know about Auschwitz, but I knew things happened when the letters stopped coming. 

On her position as a board member of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.

RW: I’m a member of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, that’s the Holocaust museum in New York. Right now, we have an exhibit about Auschwitz, and there were people on the board who didn’t want the exhibit…because it’s very expensive, a few millions. I played card, which I have never played before, I raised my hand—because there were some people that didn’t want the exhibit—and I said ‘we have to have the exhibit. It’s like a graveyard for my parents who don’t have graves.’ So those people who didn’t vote, then now voted for it. The exhibit is now extended twice—it’s not for children but it’s for young people like you. You have to see it twice. The first time, you’re going to be upset. There’s a wagon that transported Jews, Homosexuals, disabled people, Gypsies, and we have that wagon in front of the museum. We were worried about security, we were worried that people would put swastikas on the wagon. We have good report with the school across the street and the police as well—they are watching over it. 

TD: What prompted your decision to move to British Palestine?

RW: Here it is 1945—the war is over, and there is no place for me. We knew that we could not stay in Switzerland. Not like in the United States where once you were there you could become a citizen. No such thing, so I knew that from very early on, from the age of 14, I knew that Jews needed a country of their own. So that if something like the Holocaust should not happen again. I’m very much of a Zionist, I go to Israel ever year.

On her education

RW: I’m getting an honorary doctorate in Israel this spring—you are the first student paper that hears about it. These days I’m teaching. This is my fourth year teaching at Colombia University. I teach a seminar on the changing image of the family in the media, and I’m teaching two-three years at Hunter [College] with two professors of History about the history of sex education.

TD: How did you get your radio show in 1980?

RW: Because I was very well trained, I was trained by the best sex therapist in the world, Helen Singer Kaplan, and I said we need a radio, you have the power of the airwaves and I have the knowledge of human sexuality and you ought to have a program on the air. Within weeks they gave me fifteen minutes at a quarter after midnight, I did it for one year, everybody came over and said come with us, and I said no, I stay with NBC, I wanted to have the umbrella of a big network and then I did that program [for] ten years. Every Sunday night, called “Sexually Speaking” and I was on there from 10-12 and the radio station became known, as you see in the movie, as the Dr. Ruth station and then I did like hundreds of television programs

TD: Much of your early work was in the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States, can you touch on that?

RW: I was very fortunate that I always had the guts and the courage to say “I don’t know”. We did not know about AIDS, we just knew that there was a terrible disease transmitted through sexual intercourse. In my very first book, it already talked about that there is a disease that they don’t know and people have to be careful and people have to use condoms and you still know that even today, we don’t know all of the reasons, but, I do tell people “you have to be careful.” Also, I am old-fashioned and a square, I want people to have one partner. They don’t have to necessarily get married, but they should have one partner. And fortunately, the filmmaker of “Ask Dr. Ruth”, Ryan White, fortunately, that he’s gay and very outspoken and very concerned about gay issues and did the film that was very revolutionary, so, fortunately, this way I got that dimension by having a filmmaker who is gay and concerned about the AIDS issue. 

TD: What were early reactions to your broadcast like?

RW: I was very fortunate because they realized I’m well trained, I worked with Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan for seven years and I had no problems. In the beginning, as you see in the movie, there were a bunch of attorneys listening to me, when I taped it during the week, but later on, they realize[d] how seriously I take my task and they left me alone. They never really corrected any of my questions or answers. 

TD: Can you describe your views on sexual consent?

RW: So, I am not talking about the MeToo [Movement], I don’t know enough about it, I just tell you that I am old-fashioned and a square, and in my thinking, nobody has any business in bed naked, no men, no women, no two women, no two men, have no business in bed unless they have decided to have sex. Very old-fashioned and a square, and I stick to it. So this idea that “Can I now touch your left breast?” or “Can I now penetrate?” or whatever, it doesn’t work. In my book “Heavenly Sex: Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition”, last week just became a classic, a NYU best, [so it] will never be out of print. In the Jewish tradition, it says, when that part of the male anatomy is aroused, the brain flies out of your head, which says that you have to make that decision earlier. There is an American saying that says that “God didn’t give you men enough blood for two heads”. I don’t ever talk about politics and I don’t ever talk about people’s sex lives, none of my interests, except these days, and you have to know that, these days, I’ve changed my mind. I will say that how upset I am when I see children being separated from their parents because that’s my story. Never got to see my parents again. And, how upset I am that abortion is going to be game in political football, and that in this great country of ours, in this rich country of ours, that we don’t have enough money for planned parenthood and family planning, it’s very sad. So there are three things that I do talk about. And, I see that students nod their heads, so say that to your newspaper that you agree. 

TD: How was it being interviewed by Ellen DeGeneres?

RW: She [DeGeneres] dances with everyone, I am old-fashioned and a square, I wanted to dance with a man. I took somebody to dance with, and the last one, they put an adult man in boy’s shorts, that was stupid, but I danced with him. I understand that in the Jewish tradition, that a lesson taught by humor is a lesson retained so when they had this guy with short pants I said, “oh okay, I’ll dance with him.” 

TD: Something interesting that you and DeGeneres talked about onstage was your concern with the growing use of cellphones and technology and how that could hinder our abilities to converse with one another, can you comment on that?

RW: In my latest book, Sex for Dummies, the fourth edition, I talked for a whole chapter that the art of conversation is getting lost because everybody is on their phone and we are going to have problems, and young people are going to get physical problems because their neck is always down, not only when they cross the street, and the car could come, but in general, it is a very bad posture. But, more important for me, is that the art of conversation is getting lost, that people will lose the ability to talk to each other. 

TD: Do you think that will affect our sex lives?

RW: Absolutely, because I want people to have a relationship, I don’t want them to just think about intercourse and orgasm, I want them to have a relationship, I want them to find somebody that they are happy to come home to. And there is somebody that they can talk to that says “How was your day today?” So I see a lot of loneliness because of that phone. I do have a phone, it’s a wonderful little thing, if somebody wants to reach me, they can reach me. I’m not saying you should throw your phones away, I’m saying if you are with a significant other, if you are with a person that you really like, put that phone out of sight. If somebody really needs to reach you because it’s an emergency, they can reach you. 

TD: What has been the best part of your career?

RW: The best part? The best part is you two. No question. The best part is that I get to a college, Dickinson, I’ve never heard of it before. And I travel for five hours from New York, and I get very good questions from you people, and I am very happy that Megan [Yost] is willing to interview me, rather than for me to give a lecture. I like to be interviewed these days because there is a different dimension if somebody else is asking me the questions, like you for the newspaper.