Final Analysis: The Untold Story of the Susan Polk Murder Case - Catherine Crier (2007)

Part I. A DEATH ON MINER ROAD

Chapter 8. A TRAGIC MIX

Three years after his suicide attempt, Felix met and married Sharon Mann, an attractive music student at the Julliard School in New York City, who was just eighteen when the couple was first introduced in 1956. At the time, Felix was on temporary leave from the U.S. Naval Reserve, and he was employed as a social worker at the Cedar Knolls School in Hawthorne, New York County, while studying for a master’s in social work at Manhattan’s Albert Einstein College. On weekends, he worked as a recreation therapist at the Linden Hill School for Disturbed Adolescents in Westchester to supplement the monthly disability payments of $231 he had begun receiving from the navy. He was also seeing a private psychiatrist three times a week, paying $15 a session.

Two years after his marriage, on September 26, 1960, Felix received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Naval Reserve for a “physical disability.” That same year, he and Sharon relocated to northern California. There, Felix enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where he did additional undergraduate coursework. Deciding he wanted to help people like himself to get well, he applied and was admitted to the university’s PhD program.

While Felix earned his doctorate, Sharon supported the couple, and later, their small family. On October 2, 1962, she gave birth to a son, Andrew D. Polk, and three years later, on March 23, 1965, a daughter, Jennifer, was born. That same year, Felix was awarded both a PhD in clinical psychology and a second bachelor’s degree—a B.S. with honors—from Berkeley University.

The following summer, he traveled to England on a National Institute of Mental Health fellowship, where he remained for two years treating adolescents and families as a staff clinician at London’s Travistock Clinic and Institution. Though records are sketchy, it appears that Felix saw little of his wife and children during that time.

Returning to California in 1967, he landed a plum post as chief psychologist at the Alameda County Mental Health Services in Oakland where he was responsible for overseeing the psychological services for all the clinics and hospitals in the county. In addition, he was an instructor at both Hayward State University in Hayward and at Holy Names College in Oakland. While Felix was beginning to experience success, Sharon, was also excelling in her career, quickly gaining acclaim as a pianist and piano teacher.

By all accounts, the couple seemed happy. Felix and Sharon shared a love of classical music, and for one birthday, Sharon gave her husband a cello. Nancy Lemmon, a teenage babysitter who lived across Cragmont Street from the family in Berkeley, recalled in a telephone interview Sharon’s excitement the evening she presented the expensive instrument to her husband, saying that Felix was overjoyed by the gift and was anxious to learn to play. He had long dreamed of owning a cello and was overwhelmed by his wife’s thoughtfulness.

Nancy was a young teen when she began caring for the Polk children and recalled the couple vividly, stating that they were respectful of each other’s interests and seemed a good match. Felix was always welcoming when Nancy came over, making her feel at ease in his lovely home. While Nancy admitted that she never really knew what type of work Felix did, she assumed he was a college professor because of his intelligence and attire—often a tweed jacket and slacks. Sharon, too, was smart and always attractive in feminine outfits and little makeup.

Nancy was not the only one who believed that the marriage was solid. While their friends agreed that Sharon was the more outgoing of the two, the resounding sentiment was that the two seemed compatible. With Felix’s advanced degrees and Sharon’s blooming career, the couple seemed destined for success.

Things continued to improve for the young couple when at the age of thirty-six, Felix opened his private practice in the yellow clapboard house on Ashby Avenue in downtown Berkeley, several blocks from the house the couple purchased on Los Angeles Avenue. Their new residence was larger than the one on Cragmont and was located just below Arlington Circle in the center of the city. By 1969, Felix’s private practice was flourishing, and he decided to leave his post with Alameda County to devote more time to his patients. His specialty was the treatment of families and adolescents who were “acting out.”

In late 1971, he attended a weekend workshop on Erhard Seminar Training (EST), a new-age movement founded on the Zen-based approach of master and disciple. The session, led by the movement’s founder, Werner Erhard, had a powerful effect on Polk. Friends reported that the thirty-nine-year-old therapist left the workshop believing he had gained more knowledge in that one weekend than during his four years of graduate school. EST, which literally means “it is” in Latin, promoted the idea that through the application of “programming and reprogramming,” people can rewrite their lives, allowing them to be “set free and born again.” Erhard’s theory was that all problems and limitations were in the mind, and people had been “hypnotized during normal consciousness” to develop debilitating habits and beliefs that could be changed through “conscious rewiring.”

For Felix, this new-age theory made perfect sense, and he embraced it wholeheartedly. Perhaps Susan Bolling was his first disciple, since it was not long after his EST session that the fifteen-year-old walked into his Berkeley office for an evaluation.

There is no written record of exactly when the sexual relationship between Felix Polk and Susan Bolling began. According to Susan, she was fifteen the first time Dr. Polk “molested” her. She claimed he invited her to sit on his lap during one appointment, and by their fourth session he had raped her after placing her in a “drug induced” hypnotic trance. When pressed, Susan could not recall details of the alleged assault or explain why it had taken her more than twenty years to recall the abuse. She insisted, however, that it reached a point in her teenage life when the only time she left the house was to attend her sessions with Dr. Polk.

Before long, Susan grew to dread the appointments, but she claims she never really understood why. There is little question that Susan and Felix engaged in a sexual relationship during their time as patient and therapist. What remains unclear is how that relationship began. According to Susan, all she knew was that the panic—the pounding in her chest, the struggle to catch her breath—never subsided. In fact, it grew worse.

Often, therapists who transgress and have a relationship with a patient are depressed. Rather than predators, they are more often broken in some way. Such was the case with Felix Polk. Susan Bolling was fifteen and needed him. The idea of being needed made Felix feel powerful and sexually charged. In his mind, he and Susan were spiritual comrades, connected by their shared abandonment by their fathers. Susan’s father had left the family when she was six, just like Felix’s father had done—although his action was not by choice, but at the behest of the Nazis.

By falling in love with Susan, he was becoming her father, and Susan hated her father. Susan felt that Theodore Bolling had abandoned the family, and had hurt her mom. Susan recalled a memory in which she walked in on her parents one afternoon at the age of six to find them engaged in a heated argument. Helen Bolling was petite, nearly a foot smaller than her husband, and the impression of her mother dwarfed by her father’s six-foot framed stayed with her.

Unbeknownst to little Susan, Theodore Bolling was angry that his wife was refusing to sign the divorce papers. Helen later recalled how she had known for some time that her husband was having an affair. The “other” woman had been at a New Year’s Eve party that Helen and her husband attended, and Helen immediately knew who she was by the way the woman stared at Theodore. Despite his transgression, Helen was deeply in love with the intelligent, dark-haired man and was unwilling to let him go.

Her refusal infuriated Theodore. Helen recalled it was a horrifying exchange, one that persuaded her to release him from the marriage. Unfortunately for Susan, she was never able to let go of that image.

For some time after that, her allegiance remained with Helen, as evidenced in a letter she wrote to her mother in the summer of 1967. Susan and her brother, David, had been sent to stay with her father and his new family for a time. By then, Theodore Bolling was on his third wife. After leaving Helen, he was briefly married to Rita, the woman who had been the cause of his divorce from Helen. Theodore would remarry once again before settling down and practicing law in Sacramento.

While Susan was enjoying her time with her father, her letter indicates a desperate need to be in contact with her mother:

Dear Momma,

I miss you so much already. Tears are streaming down my cheeks already at night. I don’t want to leave yet, but I sure do miss you. Oh please write me. Oh please. I love you so much….

By fifteen, Susan was on the brink of an emotional collapse. Even under Felix’s care, she continued to feel as if everything was closing in on her. She wanted the claustrophobic sensation to stop. If she could only go to sleep, maybe it would go away.

One evening, Susan’s mother returned home to find her daughter sprawled on the bed. Music was blaring from the stereo, and an open bottle of pills lay by her side. Helen Bolling immediately called for help and alerted Dr. Polk to her daughter’s near-fatal suicide attempt. The psychologist briefly considered placing Susan in a facility for disturbed children at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. After careful consideration, he decided instead to put her under the care of a colleague and friend who worked at the Kaiser Mental Facility for Adults in Oakland.

At fifteen, Susan awoke to find herself the only minor in the institution. Much worse than juvenile hall, now she was among truly crazy people. In addition, her psychiatrist was Dr. Polk’s friend. Again, Felix Polk had overstepped his bounds by having the teen admitted to an adult facility and placing her in the care of a friend. If she had been admitted through the hospital emergency room, those doctors would have found a place suitable for a girl her age.

Administrators at Kaiser insisted Susan leave the facility after only one week of treatment; they didn’t want to be liable for a minor. Yet, instead of having the young woman transferred to an age-appropriate facility, Felix Polk took responsibility for her care and allowed Susan to return home to live with her mother in the house she had recently purchased in Orinda.

There was one stipulation—she had to continue to see him for therapy.

In a letter to Alameda County youth officials in 1973, Polk described Susan as a “severely disturbed girl with strong depressive features,” but he failed to mention that his therapy was doing little to help her mental state. Susan was now sixteen. She still refused to go to class, making it clear she had no intention of attending continuation school with a bunch of “uneducated” and “unsophisticated” teens. She was unwilling to be among people of “marginal” intelligence. Remarkably, her probation officer allowed her to remain at home—as long as she continued her therapy with Dr. Polk. The officer had observed a marked improvement in Susan since she started with Felix and believed that the lost teen might actually find her way.

Meanwhile, Helen thought that her daughter was thriving under Dr. Polk’s care.

In reality, Susan was deeply troubled and would later report that her therapy was adding to her anxiety. She later claimed that the sessions included hypnosis—and sex with her therapist while she was in a trance.

For her, the choice was clear: either she would surrender to Dr. Polk or risk being locked up in a mental institution. Whether Polk actually threatened the teen will never be known; however, Susan claimed that if she didn’t comply with his wishes, he would have committed her to U. C. Medical Center. She said that, at times, he would employ the plural “we” when speaking of decisions about her future. Susan was afraid to inquire about the “other” authorities who were also deciding her fate, choosing instead to go along with whatever Felix proposed.

While other teens her age were preparing for graduation and the prom, Susan claimed to be romantically involved with her forty-two-year-old married therapist. She alleged that her twice-weekly sessions consisted of “sex on the floor” of Dr. Polk’s Berkeley office.

Over time, though, the sex became consensual. Susan had grown comfortable with Felix who, despite his protectiveness, seemed to know how to make problems in her life go away. He had rescued her from school, even helping her to enroll in a course at Diablo Valley College in spite of the fact that she never completed more than the eighth grade.

Finally, someone in her life had taken charge, given her direction, and was really listening to her. Felix was the caring father—and mother—she never had. Even better, he wanted her. She loved that she seemed to be the most important person in his life.

But Susan Bolling was not well, and Felix Polk couldn’t see it.

Susan waited all day to tell her mother her secret. It was late 1974. She was seventeen now, and it was time to let Helen know that she was a woman. She had rehearsed the conversation in her mind countless times, how she would tell her mother that she was having an affair with Dr. Polk. She even tried to anticipate her mother’s reaction to the news that she was sleeping with a much older, married man.

What Susan failed to anticipate was her mother’s anger. Helen threatened to have Felix’s license revoked. Though she had never tried to intervene before, Helen Bolling would later say that she had always suspected that something was going on between the psychologist and her daughter—ever since Susan told her about sitting on Felix’s lap during some of their sessions.

Ultimately, Helen opted not to alert the authorities, going directly to Felix instead. It was the 1970s, a time when the victim of rape was often treated like the perpetrator, an outcome that Helen did not want for her daughter. As a minor, Helen had had her own experiences with the courts. She described an incident involving inappropriate contact with her father. The experience had been devastating, and she was determined to spare Susan.

Following Helen’s incident with her father, a subsequent investigation determined that the Avanzato home was not a suitable environment for young Helen. At first, she was placed in the care of her older half siblings, but ultimately she was sent to live in an orphanage. Life there was unbearable, and at the age of fourteen, with $100 in her pocket, Helen ran away to Chicago, Illinois.

A friend’s mother suggested she go there and loaned Helen money to get on her feet. Fearful that the authorities were on her trail, Helen changed her name to Lois Stokes and set off for the windy city, where she found work as a packer in a warehouse and a room to rent in a good neighborhood. Her first disappointment came at Christmas time when she lost her job at the warehouse. Though she quickly found a new job as a file clerk for an insurance company, she soon grew to dislike it. With little keeping her in Chicago, she agreed to follow a friend to Hollywood, California, shortly after she turned sixteen. The idea of living amid movie stars was appealing, and Helen readily traveled to the West Coast, where she continued to work odd jobs, mostly receptionist positions, to pay the bills.

But this was not the life that she wanted for her daughter. After learning of Susan’s affair, Helen telephoned Felix’s office, and the two had a discussion. She insisted the therapist “be kind” to her daughter when he ended their relationship. While Felix did not directly admit to a romance with Susan, neither did he deny that one was taking place, Helen later recalled. He simply promised to do as she asked.

On November 25, 1975, three years after her therapy sessions with Dr. Polk began, Susan celebrated her eighteenth birthday. Turning eighteen was emancipating. Susan was finally “of age.” In her mind, she was now an adult and no longer needed to hide her affair. She believed she was in love with the well-respected therapist who was old enough to be her father. It was cool to be his girlfriend, and she wanted everyone to know about the relationship.

One afternoon while participating in a group therapy session led by Felix, Susan stood up and playfully placed her arms around Felix’s shoulders.

“Felix and I are lovers,” she smiled.

Members of the group sat in stunned disbelief before quietly dispersing.

Susan recalled that Felix was mortified and then furious. His secret was out.

Yet, as Felix worried about how to handle the group, he learned that Susan had also confided their affair to a female therapist, who also worked in Berkeley. When Susan disclosed her romance to that therapist, she never imagined that the woman would promptly report the affair—not to authorities, but to Felix’s wife. Sharon Mann Polk was incensed, and according to Susan, both she and the therapist lashed out at her for “spilling the beans.” Susan was surprised that the two women were angry with her—and not at Felix. After all, he was the adult and the one clearly out of line for being romantically involved with a patient, not to mention a girl half his age. Sharon Mann has repeatedly denied requests for an interview.

“They were mad at me!” Susan later recalled. “Yes, tell the wife, but don’t tell the medical board.”

Susan later claimed that she made the pronouncement hoping that it would anger Felix to the point of breaking off the romance with her, but that did not happen. Felix claimed that even though Sharon wanted to stay in the marriage, he wanted to be with Susan. Susan found his proclamation unbelievable. Sharon was beautiful, articulate, intelligent, and successful. For Susan, it was flattering to hear that Felix would choose her over his more accomplished wife.

Maybe Felix just wasn’t attracted to his wife anymore. Or perhaps he wanted to mold Susan into his dream girlfriend, she thought. According to Susan, Felix had gone to see a lawyer and was advised to leave Sharon and “marry her.” Marriage, the lawyer reportedly said, was the best legal solution for Felix, but that may or may not have been the case. According to experts, there may have been other factors at play.

Regardless of his marriage, the reality was that Felix had fallen in love with a woman who at fifteen was already very sick. Then the two began a very complicated social dance. It was not like the failed relationships with his older sister and his mother, women who were always in control. This time, it was Felix who was in control, and Susan was the patient he could help.

However, in this attempt to save Susan, he unwittingly became the focus of her many internal conflicts, a process called transference. In psychological terms, transference occurs when a patient shifts feelings of anger, rage, disappointment, or love onto their therapist. In Susan’s case, Felix became her father. Complicating matters was the fact that the transference was not limited to Susan. Felix, too, struggled to reconcile his vision of Susan to reality, as Susan may have became Felix’s fifteen-year-old sister whom he had fantasized about as a teen.

It was a deadly mix of transference and countertransference, one that would have explosive consequences.

Felix and Sharon Polk legally separated on October 10, 1978—one month after the couple celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary. Ironically, Felix had marked the occasion with a $600 gift of silver purchased at Gump’s, the famous San Francisco retail store. Then, he asked for a divorce.

That fall, his teenage girlfriend sat for the Standardized Achievement Tests (SATs). Susan scored a 740 out of 800 in English and a 530 in Math, without taking any substantive math courses in high school. She was ranked in the 98th percentile in English and the 80th in Math. Soon after, she was awarded her GED.

The following year, Susan moved out of her mother’s house and in with Felix. By this time, Felix was no longer her therapist; now he was simply her boyfriend. When she demonstrated an interest in college, he chose Mills College, an all-girls school in the foothills of Oakland, and there is evidence that he was footing the bill for her education.

Compliant, and anxious to please Felix, Susan attended Mills for two years. But then she decided to take a semester off, and soon it became clear that her days at Mills were over.

Not long afterward, she began to feel suffocated by her relationship with Felix. It was okay when she still had all of her high school issues, and Felix was there to save her, but now that they were living together, she was feeling more like a nineteen-year-old hostage than a girlfriend. She couldn’t make one decision without his approval. He was exacting and became edgy when things didn’t go his way. Finally it reached a point where Susan was afraid to say anything that might upset him.

To avoid confrontation, she often listened and agreed, rather than stir controversy. She began to think back to other points in the past where she had been afraid to disagree with him. During their sessions as therapist and patient, he would set out a number of provocative theories. For instance, he told Susan that all girls had fantasies about having sex with their fathers and that their fathers wanted to sleep with them as well. He also implied that most girls had fantasies of rape. When he asked a teenage Susan if she shared those fantasies, she grew embarrassed and told him “no.” Felix insisted that these thoughts were natural, and Susan had no reason to question him. Now as she looked back, she began to see the larger impact of those statements, statements that affected her ability to have relationships of any kind.

By 1979, however, she was no longer a naive teenager. For the first time, she felt capable of making decisions on her own. At times, she didn’t want to be with Felix anymore but didn’t know how to untangle herself from his web. That fall, she enrolled at San Francisco State University and moved on campus. Having a roommate and living on her own in the center of the city made her realize that being around other people was different than being around Felix. She was less anxious and no longer afraid to speak or have an opinion. It felt good.

At one point, she even mustered up the courage to tell Felix that she wanted to “break it off.”

Her pronouncement was met by a terrifying threat: Felix warned that he would take his own life if she left him. He had left his family for her and now he was going to kill himself. Worse, he began to cry and accuse her of violating his trust, saying that he had a problem with abandonment and deceitfully claiming that he tried to commit suicide after a girlfriend left him.

Felix’s psychological dysfunction seemed to pour from him as he told Susan of his secret troubles. He spoke of his difficult childhood as a survivor of the Holocaust and of his stay in a mental hospital after a suicide attempt. He alluded to a problem with anxiety and panic attacks. He admitted to being jealous and confided that he had issues with “potency” in his first marriage.

Susan somehow felt responsible. As much as she wanted to be free of Felix, her guilt would not permit it. Besides, he was paying her college tuition and expenses. With this in mind, she resolved to stay in the relationship, despite her reservations.

In May of 1981, Susan graduated magna cum laude from San Francisco State with a B.A. in English. That November, she celebrated her twenty-fourth birthday. One month later, she married her forty-nine-year-old therapist. The wedding took place just two weeks after Felix’s divorce from Sharon Mann was finalized. “Irreconcilable differences” were cited in the couple’s uncontested divorce, which was filed with the Superior Court of California, County of Alameda, on December 8, 1981.

After three years of heated negotiations with his wife of twenty years, Felix finally agreed to the terms of the marital settlement agreement, which provided Sharon with $2,500 a month and ownership of the couple’s Berkeley home. Felix also agreed to pay the college tuition for his son, Andrew, who was a sophomore at Tufts University in Massachusetts, and to share custody of the couple’s then sixteen-year-old daughter, Jennifer.

Susan and Felix exchanged vows at the Berkeley City Club on Channing Street on December 26, 1981. The elegant, buttercup-yellow mansion had vaulted ceilings, ornate moldings, and sweeping views of the university. It had recently been granted landmark status. While architect Julia Morgan, designer of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, had built the elegant structure in 1929 for the Berkeley City Women’s Club, in recent years it was used as a catering hall.

Family members from both sides waited in the expansive dining room, with its limestone walls and palladium windows. Though several of Felix’s colleagues were in attendance, Susan had invited just one guest, Brenda, her roommate from San Francisco State. Brenda had never frowned upon the relationship with Felix, not even when Susan felt embarrassed by his age.

Susan liked that Brenda never passed judgment on her, but as she pulled on her wedding dress, a simple, short-sleeved gown, a terrifying thought came to her. She didn’t want to get married—at least not to Felix.

Suddenly, she felt lightheaded.

Susan had given her word to the waiting groom, who was downstairs dressed in a cocoa-colored suit and tie and surrounded by guests. She couldn’t go back on it now. That is not how she was raised; honoring a promise was the proper thing to do. As much as she wanted to disappear, Susan didn’t have the courage to become a runaway bride.

That evening, as she stood compliantly next to Felix, delicate and waif-like in a lacey, white dress, a wreath of baby’s breath in her hair, Susan consoled herself.

I’m young enough, she thought. I’ve got plenty of years left.