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



Susan sat quietly in the passenger seat as her mother parked the car in front of the yellow clapboard house on the corner of Ashby Avenue in downtown Berkeley, California. She and her mom were right on time for her first session with Frank Felix Polk, the Alameda County psychologist that school officials had ordered her to see.

For several months in the fall of 1972, Susan Mae Bolling had been playing hooky from Clayton Valley High School in neighboring Contra Costa County. At fifteen, the willowy brunette did not fit the profile of a truant. Recently, she had been called to the principal’s office, not to be admonished, but to be congratulated for her score on the standardized IQ test.

The principal was so excited he could barely contain himself. It was almost embarrassing how he gushed over the ninth grader with the “genius” IQ. News that the quiet freshman with the long, curly hair and hazel eyes was the school’s top scorer spread quickly through the student body, and Susan soon found herself a celebrity of sorts. Being the center of attention was not something she was comfortable with; she was awkward, reserved, and even a bit withdrawn. Being hailed as “gifted,” however, made her feel powerful. Suddenly, she was recognized as a person with superior qualities, and everyone at school was making a fuss over her. She felt extraordinary, even a bit conceited.

Susan decided she no longer needed to study. Why waste time when she was a genius? Instead of homework, she spent her after-school hours doing what she really enjoyed—reading, looking up words in the dictionary, doing crafts, and watching Dialing for Dollars, a fast-paced television game show.

Then she simply stopped going to school.

It was not something she planned. It just sort of happened. It all began the day of her ninth grade math test. She had not studied and could not bear the thought of tarnishing her genius reputation—so she just skipped school that day.

Things snowballed from there. At first, she attended classes intermittently, but soon she was falling behind. Being a genius wasn’t enough if she didn’t attend classes.

Then it happened. She received an “F” on a math test.

Realizing she was in trouble, Susan went to her teacher. He was kind and attentive, immediately offering her extra help. Their impromptu session was helpful, and the teacher told her to come back. But Susan didn’t follow through. All of a sudden, everything seemed too hard.

The walk to school was too long, especially on the days that the neighborhood bully and his buddies were on the street. At the time, Susan was living with her mother and older brother, David, in a two-bedroom apartment in Concord, an area of the East Bay about forty-five minutes outside San Francisco. She didn’t feel safe in their blue-collar neighborhood, where gunshots were not uncommon, and there’d been several murders in the hills behind her house. The little girl who lived next door had been struck in the head by a stray bullet and needed surgery to have it removed. Susan had babysat for the child several times and was horrified when her father came by to share the news. It made her nervous to pass the older boy and his friends, and she didn’t like the way they looked at her.

Even at school, she didn’t feel safe. During her first week at Clayton, a girl jumped her, and then several others joined in, shoving her repeatedly, until a teacher intervened. Susan was convinced the attack was racially motivated, and that the girls at the mostly black and Hispanic high school were jealous that some boys had taken a liking to her. She was trim and attractive in a natural sort of way, with porcelain skin, hazel eyes, and long curly hair the color of dark chocolate. Staying home with her books and visiting the imaginary world of David Copperfield was infinitely preferable to the anxiety of traveling to school and the realization that she was falling behind in class.

It wasn’t that Susan didn’t want to go to school; she loved to learn.

She just couldn’t muster the courage to leave the house anymore. When she did, she felt physically ill, as if she would faint from heart palpitations and shortness of breath. She wanted the feeling to stop.

For more than a month, Susan intercepted letters from the high school attendance office, inquiring about her excessive absences. When her mother finally learned that she had been skipping school, she didn’t ask why. Helen Bolling simply followed the recommendation of the school guidance counselor to have her daughter evaluated by Frank “Felix” Polk, a licensed clinical psychologist who specialized in the treatment of adolescents and families.

Susan’s stomach was aflutter as she trailed her mother up the steps of Dr. Polk’s clapboard house. His office was to the left of a small waiting area; the double doors were ajar, but there was no one inside and no receptionist to greet them. After waiting for some time, Susan and her mother returned to the car. The psychologist was apologetic when Mrs. Bolling phoned to question his absence, and another appointment was scheduled.

On the second visit, Susan was just as uncomfortable, but as it turned out, she was off the hook again. Polk, who went by the name “Felix,” seemed more amused than sorry that he’d double-booked for their new time slot and asked Mrs. Bolling to reschedule once more. Susan didn’t really have much choice; because of her truancy, the school required that she be evaluated by this doctor.

Her mother didn’t even park the car on their third visit to the Berkeley office. She double-parked on Ashby Avenue until she was sure the therapist was available. A million thoughts ran through Susan’s mind as she climbed the steps of the yellow house for a third time. What if the psychologist is really handsome, she worried. She would not be able to speak to him. She would be too shy to open up.

Dr. Polk requested to speak privately with Mrs. Bolling before meeting with the teen. Susan waited anxiously in the small reception area as her mother disappeared behind the office’s heavy double doors. It was a long fifteen minutes before her mother summoned her to join the conversation.

The sparsely furnished room was dim with only one window located high on the wall, almost to the ceiling. There was a small kitchenette in the rear of the space. Standing awkwardly near one of the dark leather chairs, Susan remained silent as the psychologist and her mother continued their discussion. She felt relieved at the sight of the fortyish and not so handsome doctor. He was not particularly tall, about 59, 160 pounds, and his prominent nose, kinky brown hair, and thick lips were not what she had envisioned.

“No problem,” she mused to herself. She could never be attracted to such a person.

Her mother finally left the room. Feeling awkward and insecure, Susan glanced around, and then focused on the casually dressed professional. She didn’t like the way he was looking at her.

At fifteen, Susan realized that boys were eyeing her differently. They seemed interested in a way she had not experienced. Yet a flirtatious look from one of her male teenage friends was one thing, while a similar look from her new psychologist was quite another. He looked more than twice her age.

Susan stared blankly at the tanned, older man when he asked if she had anything she wanted to discuss. “I don’t feel like talking.”

“That’s okay,” the psychologist soothed. “I’ll talk for you.”

Felix Polk spoke in a slow, deliberate tone. His gravelly voice had a faint accent, almost like a lisp, that was more pronounced when he said certain words.

Susan sat, watching his movements and listening to him speak. There was something about this man that caught her interest. He seemed to know how to pay attention to a young person. Slowly, she began to feel at ease in his presence.

“What do you like to do at home?” he asked.

“I like to read,” Susan told him.

Her response seemed to intrigue the psychologist. Dr. Polk appeared genuinely impressed that Susan was currently reading Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, and his interest appeared sincere. She felt flattered when this successful, professional man who was much older, and certainly wiser than she, gave her compliments. Suddenly, Susan felt important and smart. Dr. Polk was twenty-five years her senior, yet she felt the two had made a connection.

Their subsequent sessions were better. Talking about books was easy for Susan. Reading had always been a passion, a way to escape the drudgery of life, and the pain of her absent father, her working mother, and her frustrated, rageful older brother.

Just like her truancy, Susan kept her sessions with Dr. Polk a secret. The therapist had instructed her not to disclose their discussions, and she agreed. She liked the idea of knowing things that nobody else knew—not even her mother.

Already, Dr. Polk had told Susan that she was a lot like him. She was shy, withdrawn, and self-conscious. She wasn’t crazy, just quiet.

It was her mother who was “crazy” and a “bitch,” he announced.

Polk’s assessment had huge appeal to Susan. She had been protective of her mother and had defended her vehemently to her father. Her parents had divorced when she was five years old. But at fifteen, she began blaming her mother, Helen, for the way her life was going.

Susan was angry that they didn’t have more money and that she didn’t have better clothes. Their tiny apartment was furnished with items her mother purchased at Good Will, while her closet was full of old clothes and other items from a secondhand boutique. Susan wanted to live in a nicer house and go to a better school with people who were smarter, people who were more like her. Faulting her mother for her unhappiness, as Dr. Polk suggested, was a good tactic, and Susan latched on to the idea. Her new therapist would often speak aloud what she was thinking, as if he could read her mind.

Susan’s resentment of her mother ran deeper than that of a typical teenager toward a parent. Her feelings were heightened by her mother’s lack of understanding and her constant excuses for her brother’s erratic behavior. Helen Avanzato Bolling was a no-nonsense type. The fiery, tiny-boned woman stood barely five feet tall. On her own since she was fourteen, she was extremely street savvy. She had supported herself for several years before marrying Theodore Dickson Bolling Jr., an undergraduate student at San Francisco State University in downtown San Francisco.

In February of 1956, not long after the couple married, Helen gave birth to a son, David. The following year, on November 25, 1957, Susan was born. At first, life was agreeable, and Helen stayed at home to raise the two children. But everything changed shortly after Susan’s father announced a desire to attend law school. When they married, Susan’s mother made herself a promise not to interfere with her husband’s aspirations. Faced with this decision, Helen didn’t stand in his way.

The choice was a costly one. Theodore Bolling was hardly ever home. His day job, followed by his studies at Southwestern University in downtown Los Angeles, ate up all of his time. His absence was difficult for Susan, who adored her father and his rare but sweet attention.

To soothe her children, Helen Bolling made promises. “Someday daddy will be out of school, and things will be different,” she assured them. “Then you’ll have a real daddy.”

But that time never came. As Helen soon learned, her husband had begun an affair that progressed rapidly. Upon completing his studies, Theodore Bolling asked for a divorce. On August 28, 1962, he was admitted to the State Bar of California, and his final departure came shortly thereafter.

Helen was devastated, but little Susan was inconsolable.

The divorce destroyed Susan and, according to her mother, the child “was left with an empty hole she could never seem to fill.” After the split, Helen quickly rented out the small house she’d won in the divorce settlement, relocating her children to a cheaper apartment in East Oakland. It was the first of several moves, each of which forced Susan and David to disconnect from their peers and start over.

Instead, Susan turned to books. “They are my friends,” she told her mother. When Susan did finally fall in with a group of girls in junior high school, Helen Bolling let it be known that she did not approve of one of the teens. Her criticism sparked additional friction between mother and daughter.

Like Susan, David had also been labeled as “gifted.” Yet he, too, had stopped attending school. When he wasn’t locked away in his room reading science magazines or building homemade rockets in the basement, he was taunting Susan, threatening her and pushing her around.

David fell in with a bad crowd while the family was living in Concord. Susan’s mother tried to intervene and, at one point, even sublet their apartment and moved her children to a better area in downtown Oakland to get him away from the rough neighborhood. To Susan it appeared that her mother was pacifying her brother despite his bad behavior, while punishing her for trying to escape his persecution. With her mother at work much of the day, Susan was an unprotected target for David’s rage.

Susan tried to tell her mother what was going on, but her cries for help seemed to go unnoticed; after all, it was the Dr. Spock era when hands-off parenting was encouraged. Nevertheless this method was backfiring. What Susan really needed was strong parental supervision and intervention, but Helen Bolling was not capable of such discipline. With Susan’s dad now raising his new family in Sacramento, the kids had no other role model, and his presence in their lives was inconsistent and fleeting.

As the torment with her brother escalated, Susan could no longer bear the burden that home life placed on her. With nowhere else to turn, she ran away from home. Her mother was furious and reported Susan as a “runaway.” She allowed authorities to place the twelve-year-old in juvenile hall to teach her a lesson. More than two years later, Susan still hadn’t forgiven her mother.

On her fourth therapy session with Dr. Polk, the therapist asked Susan if she’d be willing to try something new and radical.

“Would you consent to be hypnotized?” he asked. “I think you have various memories of trauma in your past. Do you want to dig those up?”

Cool, Susan thought. The idea of being hypnotized sounded intriguing.

Even if she wanted to say no, she didn’t feel she could. Dr. Polk was a psychologist. He knew what was best for her, and besides she had read that it really wasn’t possible to put someone under hypnosis. Regardless, she would do whatever he asked.

Susan watched eagerly as Dr. Polk strode to the small kitchen in the rear of the office and poured something into a teacup.

“This will relax you,” he said in a nurturing voice, handing Susan the steaming liquid.

The scent was hauntingly familiar. Yet as she drew her first sip, she didn’t recognize the taste. Feeling very mature, Susan relaxed into the big leather chair. Sipping from the cup, she felt a warm sensation and began to feel sleepy.

Dr. Polk’s gravelly voice sounded like a dull hum. He instructed her to count backward from ten.

She methodically followed along. “Ten…nine…eight…seven…six…”

“Susan!” the psychologist’s raspy voice startled her awake. It felt as if only seconds had passed since she’d sipped from her teacup. Yet the office clock had advanced forty-five minutes. Glancing over at the coffee table, Susan observed that her teacup was empty, and her mouth had a funny taste.

Uneasiness swept over her as she struggled to recall what had taken place. The last thing she remembered was counting backward. Now it was time to leave.

“What happened? What did we talk about?” she asked, feeling a sudden pang of mistrust. “How come I can’t remember anything?”

Dr. Polk appeared nervous and avoided her gaze. Rising from his chair, he escorted her to the door.

He would see her again in two days.

Susan still does not know what occurred during the hypnotic session. She later claimed that, from that day forward, she felt afraid whenever Felix Polk was around.

Not long after Susan began her therapy, she was arrested for shoplifting some clothing from a local store. The probation officer assigned to her case took an instant liking to her but also recognized the signs of an adolescent at risk: Delicate and frail, the girl appeared in need of mothering.

It was clear that the teen was troubled but punishment was not the answer. What Susan needed was mental health counseling, and her probation officer told the judge as much. This girl was too fragile for the juvenile detention center, the officer argued, not to mention the fact that there were some pretty tough kids in there. But her opposition did nothing to change his mind, and the judge sentenced Susan to one month in the Martinez lock-down facility, a place filled with delinquents, mostly teenage runaways.

During her time there, Felix Polk went to visit Susan, and his visit upset her. Seeing him reminded her of their hypnosis sessions. It was unsettling that she could not recall many of the details, and she believed there were things going on that were highly irregular.

She had been sent to Dr. Polk for an evaluation. He was supposed to help her anxiety, the panic she was feeling every morning before leaving for school; but now, she was locked away with a bunch of degenerate runaways. All her life, she tried to be a good girl. She primped to look pretty and remembered her manners, yet here she was in a place for delinquent youths.

How had her life become so unmanageable?

The only thing she could do now was run away again. She wanted to be free of Felix, her mother, and everything else in her teenage life. One afternoon, she escaped from the juvenile facility. It wasn’t hard; a number of kids had done it. Susan simply hitched a ride with someone in the parking lot. She went to a friend’s apartment in Trestle Glenn, a nice Oakland neighborhood.

It was fun staying with her girlfriend who was engaged to a navy man. The two never made her feel like a third wheel when she joined them on their dates. To the contrary, she felt part of a unit, something she had never experienced. The apartment was peaceful, and Susan felt “normal” for the first time. She had companionship, someone to share meals with, to talk to. It was the happiest she had been in a long time.

After a month on her own, Susan decided to return home and placed a call to her mother. Helen Bolling was now living in a small house she purchased for twelve thousand dollars in a community south of Concord. With its large homesteads and centuries-old eucalyptus trees dotting the rolling green hillsides, the unincorporated city of Orinda was a definite step up for the family. At the time, Orinda was still a farming town with orchards covering much of the landscape and no main shopping district. The home Helen had purchased was in the “low-rent” section of town, across the tracks from fancier, more expensive homes nestled in the hills.

Helen was surprised to hear from her daughter. Uncertain how to proceed with Susan’s desire to return home, Helen immediately called Dr. Polk to find out if her daughter could come back without being rearrested.

There were indications that Helen was aware Dr. Polk was employing some unusual techniques during the sessions with her teenage daughter. Susan had confided that she’d sat on Dr. Polk’s lap during one appointment. The approach sounded a bit unorthodox, but it was the early 1970s in Berkeley, California. Things were pretty fast and loose. For Helen, the doctor’s behavior could well be part of a new trend in adolescent therapy. In the back of her mind, she may have sensed that something was going on between Dr. Polk and her daughter, but for whatever reason she did nothing about it.

Dr. Polk said he would take care of everything.

As promised, Felix Polk wrote a letter to the court explaining why Susan Bolling had run away and received permission for her to come home. In exchange, the court mandated that Susan return to her therapy with Dr. Polk and attend a continuation school to complete her ninth grade studies.

Ironically, the psychologist whom Susan had been sent to see for a simple evaluation had somehow become the person responsible for her freedom.

Felix Polk, it seemed, was going to be a powerful force in Susan’s life.