Ruth Westheimer, Ed.D., is best known as “Dr. Ruth,” the unabashed sex therapist who gained fame on radio and TV in the 1980s. But Westheimer’s eventful, sometimes tragic early life taught her much about the importance of psychological strength in the face of hardship. In September, Westheimer contributed her hard-won wisdom to a session on “Resilience and Trauma” at the Yale Club of New York, sponsored by the Department of Psychiatry. Also featured were department Chair John H. Krystal, M.D., Robert McNeil Professor of Translational Research; William H. Sledge, M.D., George and Esther Gross Professor of Psychiatry; and Steven M. Southwick, M.D., professor of psychiatry and deputy director of the Clinical Neurosciences Division of the Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Born Karola Ruth Siegel to Orthodox Jewish parents in Germany, Westheimer came of age as the Nazis were rising to power. After witnessing the abduction of her father, she was sent to a Swiss orphanage by her mother and grandmother, and later learned that both her parents had been murdered in the Holocaust.
Westheimer attributed her success in overcoming these challenges to solid social support, particularly that she received early in life; education; an optimistic outlook; cognitive flexibility; coping skills; and pursuit of a worthwhile mission. These factors were echoed in research presented by Southwick, who has studied PTSD in ex-prisoners of war, Special Forces instructors, and civilians who have endured extremely traumatic events.
Westheimer’s coping skills are exemplary, said her Yale hosts, calling her a “force of nature” who “embodies the idea of resilience and post-traumatic growth.”