The Doctor Is In is not a well-written book, but it’s an awfully charming one. The blunt and plainspoken style of Dr. Ruth Westheimer is translated with minimal alteration to her memoir-cum-self-help tome, in a conversational prose that lends the book a breezy, scattershot style. It’s best if you imagine her distinctive voice reading the words aloud to you, because without that idiosyncratic accent in your ear, the language of this text can quickly go flat. Despite that, Westheimer has lived a fascinating life, and the relentless can-do spirit that suffuses her story is ultimately a winning one.
Tied together by the central theme of how to live a life filled with joie de vivre, Dr. Ruth takes readers on a tour of her life. And she jumps right in: By page three of the first chapter, her father is being taken away by the SS stormtroopers in Nazi Germany, and 10-year-old Ruth (née Karola Ruth Siegel) is loaded onto a kindertransport in a horrifying (and narrow) escape from the Holocaust. It’s a harrowing story, one that continues as the details of her time at a boarding school in Switzerland become clearer. Of course, that’s in a different chapter altogether, because mere paragraphs after the Holocaust escape story, Westheimer is dishing anecdotes about the fun times she has on cruise ships.
This is an understandable strategy for a self-help book. Leavening any heavy stuff with lighthearted stories and relatable personal quirks makes for an easy read. It doesn’t serve a memoir particularly well, however. Then again, Westheimer makes no bones about the fact that this book, like almost all her endeavors, was undertaken in the hopes of helping people. Using each life story as another tactic to get at the fundamental argument that we should all be focusing on the positives in life gives her a means—albeit an uneven one—for keeping the focus on techniques for better living, the area of communication in which she feels most at ease.
More than a few times, the ongoing anecdotes lose their interest. Encounters with her dear friends often are of more interest to Dr. Ruth than to the reader, especially when the moral is a more simplified version of a message she has just hammered home with three or four previous first-person examples. Combined with the almost free-associative structure of some of the chapters, it’s likely that, as with most self-help techniques, the reader could benefit from putting it down and coming back later, possibly skipping ahead to the next chapter.
But Dr. Ruth’s sunny and spitfire personality is so winning, it’s hard to get too frustrated with her literary technique. At certain points, I found myself feeling carried away by her exhortations to lead a more positive and carefree life, making future plans to accentuate the good things and keep a smile on my face. “It must be working,” I thought, shortly before looking up from the book to see a man next to me on the El train pouring the soda he no longer wanted onto the floor of our car. In that moment, “What Would Dr. Ruth Do?” became a mantra more admirable than practicable.