Much of America is going through a Madonna moment: Like a virgin, touched for the very first time! Brushing against a stranger in a restaurant, clobbering someone with a hug, shaking a new acquaintance’s hand—for those who have stayed isolated over the past 15 months, these experiences can feel novel and exciting and highly weird. Perhaps no one is better suited to advise us on navigating this moment than Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, America’s favorite nonagenarian sex therapist.
Dr. Ruth isn’t just famous for her books, her radio and television shows, and her cameo in a classic Herbal Essences commercial. She has also lived an extraordinary life. Born in 1928 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Frankfurt, Germany, she traveled in a Kindertransport convoy to Switzerland at age 10 as the Nazis rose to power, and spent the rest of her childhood there in a home for orphans. She moved to Mandatory Palestine shortly before the establishment of the state of Israel and served as a sniper in the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization. Later, in America, she spent time as a single mother to her daughter, Miriam. And decades afterward, she survived the death of her longtime husband, Fred Westheimer. Dr. Ruth knows what it means to live through hard times.
She was waiting in the hallway when I got off the elevator, standing at her apartment door in moccasin-style slippers after learning of my arrival from her beloved doormen. Right away, I suspected that she would be a formidable interviewee: She was ready for me, and I had no hope of keeping up. Her walls are covered with photos of her grinning at famous people: Bill and Hillary Clinton, Prince Philip. As befits a therapist and talk-radio host, she loves to flip the conversation and ask lots of questions, even when she’s the supposed subject. She had a stack of materials waiting for me at her dining-room table and a checklist of updates about her busy life written in Sharpie on a piece of computer paper. She was charmingly bemused by my searching questions about adjusting to regular life after the pandemic. “Stop constantly talking about how difficult it was!” she told me as we sat together next to the wide, trinket-lined windows in her apartment overlooking the Hudson River. “We all know that. Period.”
Still, evidence of how she survived the past year was everywhere: She spoke constantly of how much she loves seeing her grandchildren and taking walks in the sprawling park near her apartment. During our interview, she took a quick call from a friend wishing her a sweet Shabbat. Dr. Ruth is not one for corny takeaways, but I left her apartment thinking that her message is clear: A good life is one full of people.
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Emma Green: During the pandemic, were you lonely?
Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer: Was I lonely? Yeah, of course. Any widow—I’ve now been a widow for over 20 years—there are moments of loneliness. What I then do is go right to the list of positive things that you have, right away. In that respect, I’m a very good therapist for myself.
Green: You seem like a people person—very social. How was it to adjust from being around people all the time to this new existence?
Dr. Ruth: I did, once, a study of those children who left Frankfurt with me, who went to Switzerland, who then became orphans. I did a study of what happened to them. Of all 50 of us, none of them became clinically depressed. None of them committed suicide. None of them fell by the wayside.
Nobody else but me became Dr. Ruth!
However, there’s a reason for that. The early socialization, the early years of my childhood, were in a loving family. All of us were in a loving household. That’s what helped us to survive. And I think that that’s what helped me right now, again.
Green: You said in the documentary about your life, Ask Dr. Ruth, that your childhood as an orphan made it clear to you how important it is to be touched—to be in relationships with each other.
Dr. Ruth: That’s why I say to everybody: I hope that right now, after the epidemic, that you go out, and that you find a partner.
Green: When you say everyone should go out and find a partner, what do you mean by that? What are you hoping to see?
Dr. Ruth: I hope that right now people should be optimistic again. Definitely single people should say, “Okay, the time has come for me to find myself a partner.”
Green: I know so many people who felt despair about that during the pandemic—not only about being lonely in a daily sense, but about ever finding someone to be with.
Dr. Ruth: I will say, if you feel despair, and if it’s serious, go and see a psychiatrist. Don’t sit there and suffer by yourself.
Green: Sure, but I mean more—I think the pandemic showed us how important relationships are.
Dr. Ruth: I don’t want to say that.
Green: You don’t think so?
Dr. Ruth: What I say is, a few more months, people are not going to talk about the epidemic anymore.
Green: You think?
Dr. Ruth: Yes.
Dr. Ruth: Yes.
Green: You think we’re just going to move on and leave it behind?
Dr. Ruth: Absolutely. And that’s what I’ve subscribed to.
Green: Why do you think that’s better?
Dr. Ruth: Because I think that that’s what happens. And that’s from my experience as an orphan of the Holocaust. If I hadn’t had the inner strength to keep on and go on, I wouldn’t be Dr. Ruth. So I don’t want to dwell on it. I want to say, “Terrible time!” Luckily, look how wonderful: Last night I was at a restaurant. Every table was taken.
Green: You’ve lived through all of these big moments in history. You were on Kindertransport.
Dr. Ruth: I was in the Haganah. I was badly wounded.
Green: That’s a lot to have to move on from.
Dr. Ruth: But that’s why I’m saying: This is all due to my early socialization in an Orthodox Jewish home, with a grandmother who said, “Trust in God.” That kept me throughout my life. Now I’m going to be 93.
Green: One thing that I hear people talking about is that it’s hard to go back to normal life. People feel like they’ve lived through something traumatic. I wonder: In terms of relationships, like being back with people, how can we rebuild?
Dr. Ruth: A good relationship is going to survive. And I’m going to say to people, “Stop constantly talking about how difficult it was!” We all know that. Period.
My advice is: When you talk on the phone, find something before you pick up the phone—something positive—that you can discuss. Because all of this—how terrible it was, and how upset, and how lonely—is not going to help you.
Green: You know, I saw this chewing-gum commercial recently that made me think of you. It showed all of these people waking up after the pandemic and emerging from their homes. Everyone starts making out—in the lawn and in the pond and in the park.
Dr. Ruth: I didn’t see that.
Green: Do you think it’s good for people to go out and start, you know, getting together?
Dr. Ruth: No; I tell you why. I do not want people to have indiscriminate sexual relations. I don’t want to see a rise in AIDS! I have spent so much time of my life worrying about unintended pregnancies and about sexually transmitted diseases. So my advice is: Yes, go out, try to find a partner. But don’t hop into bed just because you didn’t have sex for a year and a half.
That would be a big mistake. Put an exclamation mark next to mistake!
Green: I also noticed that, among some of my friends who were dating during the pandemic, they couldn’t go to somebody’s house, because it wasn’t safe. And they couldn’t necessarily have sex. So it was a much slower way of getting to know each other. I wonder if you think there’s value in that—removing sex from the equation.
Dr. Ruth: No, no, I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to speculate. Sometimes people have sex at the first time and are married for 50 years after!
Green: This is a different topic: It has struck me that people of your generation are the last people who lived through the Holocaust. Little kids are not going to grow up around people who are survivors or who lived through the Holocaust. And I wonder what you think that will mean for the world.
Dr. Ruth: The next generation—and the next, next, next generation—eventually, it’s going to feel for them like ancient history. But there is enough material and enough literature and enough museums for them to learn the history of “Never again.” But it’s a very important question that you have. Because if it will look to them like ancient history, then it will not have the same impact as if one can say, “But your grandmother’s parents were in Europe.”
(At this point, Dr. Ruth was determined to get my life story. She asked me about my family, my education, and my career, which brought us around to The Atlantic.)
Green: Are you an Atlantic subscriber?
Dr. Ruth: No!
Green: Well, we’ll get you a free subscription maybe.
Dr. Ruth: I would like that. Put down that I love freebies! And you promised me a free subscription. (Pounds the table.)
Green: How do you have the energy to keep doing all these things that you do?
Dr. Ruth: That’s what people ask me. And I think, No. 1, I sleep very well. No. 2, I haven’t vacuum-cleaned my apartment in a long time. No. 3, I love getting freebies—hee-hee, like now I got The Atlantic!
I also know I am an endangered species. That’s the word I use for myself. I know what I don’t do. I don’t go into a crowd—not because of my philosophy, but because I’m too short.