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No Ordinary Murder

She Is Accused of Killing Her Husband, Who Also Had Been Her Therapist

June 15, 2003|Carol Pogash | Carol Pogash is a Bay Area-based writer.

The murder was so tragic, so unbelievable, that it took weeks before a memorial service could be organized. Gray-haired men and women in respectful navys, charcoals and tans, and buzz-cut young men in white-collared shirts too snug for their muscled necks, silently filed into the Northern California church. After the mourners spaced themselves along the wooden pews, a tape of Pink Floyd's searing "Wish You Were Here" engulfed the sanctuary:

"So you think you can tell heaven from hell, blue skies from pain . . ."

They didn't quite deify the once-robust Felix Polk, who died at age 70. But at this sweet, somber service in the autumn of 2002, fellow therapists spoke lovingly of the warm, wise and demanding man. Slide projectors beamed images on either side of the altar: Felix hunched over his cello next to his first wife, a classical pianist; virile Felix with red bandanna and dark blue undershirt cradling a baby from his first family; an older Felix, smiling, with a baby from his second family strapped to his back; and, finally, Felix in shirt and tie sending his second son off into the world.

There were no photos of his second wife, Susan Polk. Nor was her name mentioned. Although everyone in the church knew, no one said the obvious: Their marriage had been fraught with internal conflict from the start. Felix had been both her lover and her therapist. They had met when she was a troubled adolescent and he was the mature therapist. A year later, they were having sex. As his fellow therapists knew but kept to themselves, mixing personal relations with professional treatment can be perilous.

In mid-October, while Felix and Susan were enmeshed in a bitter divorce, prosecutors allege that she casually murdered him. She is in jail awaiting trial.

Helen Bolling is a tiny woman whose clear blue eyes turn upward naturally. She remembers that as a child, her daughter, Susan, read everything she could, from Jack London to Tolstoy, and that she had excelled as a writer. With pride, her mother retrieves an award given to Susan by the Mt. Diablo Unified School District for recognition in creative writing. It is dated Jan. 29, 1971.

By age 15, her mother says, Susan was becoming a beauty, with pale, creamy skin and dark eyes. When Bolling and her daughter walked down the street together, people's "eyes would drop open as we passed."

But she also was troubled. Bolling and her husband divorced, leaving a hole in Susan's life. Bolling says she can't remember the nature of the problem that prompted a counselor at Clayton Valley High School in Concord to recommend therapy for Susan--only that the counselor thought she should go to an expert in adolescent behavior, Felix Polk.

Taking that advice, Bolling now says, was the worst decision she ever made.

Felix was European by bearing and birth, with a gravelly voice and expressive face. Born into an intellectual, affluent Austrian family that owned department stores, his early years were spent in Vienna. His was an idyllic childhood, with a toy train set that had a real steam engine and was big enough for him to ride.

The family was full of prominent musicians and Jewish aristocrats. "It was the kind of family that if they didn't know Freud, they should have," says Danny Goldstine, chief psychologist at Berkeley Therapy Institute, who befriended Felix while the two were in graduate school together. All that ceased when, on the cusp of World War II, the Polks fled Austria. They went into hiding for a few years before escaping to the United States when Felix was 9, reestablishing themselves in Harrison, N.Y., where they opened a small department store. Yet Felix's parents remained loyal to their home country, even continuing to purchase Austrian bonds.

Felix once told an old friend that he never saw his father without a jacket and tie. Years later, friends from his graduate school days at UC Berkeley recall Felix as having been somewhat formal even in the most informal of times. He'd been in the Navy during the Korean War, and sometimes in the 1960s he would appear at major occasions in his dress whites. When most of his friends joined the Free Speech Movement, Felix kept his distance. While others were enjoying the era of free love, he was married to a classical pianist. Together, they had a son and daughter.

"On the surface, he was the gentlest, nicest, most ethical person around. But from hearing about things he did, you realize there's another person under the surface," says a therapist who'd been close to him when they were young. As with several friends or associates interviewed for this article, the friend refused to speak if identified.

One of the first creases in Felix's otherwise ironed image occurred in the '70s, when "distinguished therapists" were invited to weekend sessions to learn about est, a New Age self-improvement movement founded by Werner Erhard. Felix said afterward that he'd "learned more in one weekend than in all four years of graduate school."

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