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

Part I. A DEATH ON MINER ROAD

Chapter 7. THE DOCTOR’S DISEASE

Frank “Felix” Polk had been a well-respected therapist and esteemed member of the faculty at Argosy University, where he taught psychology for more than a decade. His faint accent and formal attire reflected his wealthy European upbringing. His intuitive approach ingratiated him to others, from his superiors right down to the Argosy librarian.

Born in Vienna, Austria, on June 30, 1932, Felix had enjoyed a privileged childhood. His father, Eric Ernst Polk, was a wealthy clothing manufacturer, who was born a Jew in Czechoslovakia and later emigrated to Austria, where he met and married Johanna Hahn. The couple’s daughter, Evelyn, was two years old when Felix and his fraternal twin, John, were born. The children were reared by a nanny and led a charmed life for several years, but all that came to a sudden end in 1938 when SS officers came for Felix’s father. Young Felix could do nothing but hide as the men dragged the elder Polk away. It was a terrifying scene; large men in uniforms and helmets brutalizing his father and carting him away as the boy stood by, unable to help.

He wanted to run after them, to save his father, but the little six-year-old could do nothing. Losing his father that way changed Felix forever. He would never be comfortable in the real world again.

With Eric Polk gone, the family was forced to flee the German invasion and abandon their majestic stone house in the country’s capital.

“We had to keep one step ahead of the Nazis,” Felix recalled many years later.

He claimed the family headed to the French countryside, where for nearly a year, they secretly lived in the attic of a farmhouse used regularly by German troops. It was a kind of Anne Frank existence in which no one dared speak for fear of being discovered, Felix said. To pass the time, he retreated to an imaginary world—a world in which he was able to save his father.

While Felix would later say the terrifying experience gave him a “built-in sense of survival,” this knowledge carried a high price. Children who are separated from their parents early in life often do not recover from the trauma. Six is a critical age for a developing boy to lose his father to what the family believed was certain death. For Felix, there was also a powerful belief that he had failed his dad. He had stood idle, his heart pounding in his chest, as the men with the big guns carted away his beloved father.

In his heart, Felix believed he should have done something. But what?

The act of hiding and the psychological impact of believing that people are out to get you—because they are—can leave profound and lifelong scars on a young mind. As an adult, Felix would suffer from bouts of severe depression, marked by dark moods, anxiety, and panic attacks.

At some point, Felix’s father escaped captivity at a concentration camp and rejoined the family for a time, but he soon left to fight alongside the British Expeditionary Forces. This voluntary departure was almost worse than the first. Good fathers weren’t supposed to leave their families, and without his dad, Felix felt lost and unprotected once again.

Years later, the family was reunited in Marseilles, thanks to an ad Felix’s father had run in a French newspaper seeking their whereabouts. For a brief time, Felix attended boarding school in France before crossing into Spain with his family, where they converted to Catholicism to gain entry. From Spain, they traveled to Portugal and eventually boarded a ship bound for the United States.

It’s not known what effect, if any, the involuntary change of religion had on young Felix. An autopsy revealed that, despite his Jewish heritage, he had never been circumcised, possibly to protect him from persecution in war-ravaged Europe. Years later, he would joke of his conversion with friends, who described the psychologist as “culturally Jewish.”

In 1941, the Polks landed in America and eventually settled in Harrison, New York, where Felix’s father set up a retail business that quickly succeeded. Throughout his life, Eric Polk exhibited a remarkable ability to rebound from tragedy, and America was the perfect venue for his resilience, as he quickly established two profitable five-and-dime stores in Rockland County.

Despite his father’s success, Felix, who was nine when the family made the transatlantic voyage, proved least able to adjust to life in the land of opportunity. He resented that his family no longer enjoyed the financial status they enjoyed in Austria. He had no time for play because his father expected Felix to work in the family business. His was a Victorian upbringing; crying was not allowed in the Polk home.

In 1949, at the age of seventeen, Felix left the comfort of his parents’ New York home for St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where he had earned a scholarship. Even though Felix started high school late, he still managed to graduate with his class. Nevertheless his parents weren’t satisfied with his academic performance, and they constantly held up the achievements of his twin brother, John, as the example to follow. Felix resented the comparison and John’s ease in forming many friendships. Neither came naturally to Felix. He was plagued by a foreboding he couldn’t explain.

Once at college, Felix’s academic interests flourished. Philosophy became his passion, and he immersed himself in his studies to the point of obsession. While the work was invigorating, his constant self-analysis seemed to alienate his classmates, and Felix made few friends on campus. Similarly, family members reported that Felix’s dark letters home were filled with “marked preoccupations” and “esoteric discussions,” and that he exhibited “fluctuating moods of unhappiness” during his visits home.

Upon graduation from St. John’s with a bachelor of arts degree in 1953, Felix enlisted as an officer in the U.S. Navy to meet his military obligations. That summer, he was sent to Officer Candidate School (OCS) at the U.S. Naval Reserve Station in Newport, Rhode Island. Within walking distance of the sandy ocean beaches and the hopping downtown, it was a grand place to be stationed in July and August.

However, Felix rarely enjoyed these surroundings. According to U.S. Naval records, the twenty-two-year-old officer-in-training was “under greater strain than other students” at OCS. “He disliked the routine, but got through the program,” records stated.

After amphibious training at a base in Little Creek, Virginia, Felix was assigned to a Landing Ship Tank (LST) on the West Coast and cruised to Japan. An LST carries supplies and troops and has a top speed of ten knots, slower than a champion woman marathoner, and the four-week crossing seemed endless. Aboard ship, Felix held the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade (JG) and served as a stores officer. Though not always content, he adjusted well, according to the naval records.

But still, something wasn’t right.

Felix was “moody and depressed” according to family members who advised him to seek help. While on leave from the navy in December of 1954, Felix went to see a psychiatrist named Kurt Goldstein, but he was only able to meet with Dr. Goldstein once before deploying back to the West Coast that month.

His parents, Eric and Johanna Polk, were aware that their son was troubled. He had always been the “maladjusted” member of the family they reported, but the couple remained aloof, according to naval records, “because of his treatment.” It was the 1950s, and mental illness was something that people feared. Felix was seeking help—that was all his parents would acknowledge. Discussion of any emotion—love, fear, or sadness—was not encouraged in the Polk house. After all, Felix’s father had been a war hero, and he was a man with high expectations. Weakness was not to be tolerated.

But Felix felt weak. He tried to function as best he could, completing high school and even meeting with some success in college, but enlisting in the navy proved emotionally difficult. Though he made it through boot camp, he had a difficult time. Wearing a uniform and training for combat went against everything he believed in. Uniforms signified guns, blood, and death. He had seen more than his share as a youngster.

Once in the navy, that panicky, pulsating anxiety he felt as a child hiding in a farmhouse returned. While at sea, Felix documented his emotional difficulties in a diary. In one entry, dated January 21, 1955, he recounted his disappointment and anger at a letter he received from a woman named Adele that he courted with little success:

Despite the general stupidity of the letter, there were several thoughts which caused me real anguish. I was accused of being unrealistic, of living in a world which does not exist. I deny that my world is unrealistic, and yet I am tormented by my inability to communicate in the “real” world.

The entry described a double date the couple attended with Felix’s twin brother, John, and a woman named Evelyn B. The four had gone to Manhattan to see The Saint of Bleecker Street:

I felt beforehand that I would be self-conscious. This turned out to be the case. I couldn’t speak. I was terribly uncomfortable at the concert. The more I tried to relax, the more self-conscious I became, until it became almost unbearable. When we left…I was near collapse. Of course, she [Adele] must have noticed that something was wrong. The first two times that we met I had the good fortune of having had several drinks beforehand. Alcohol is usually very helpful in subduing my consciousness.

I wonder what she [Adele] thought when my letter came. Her answer took a motherly and, at the same time, destructive attitude. I resent the motherly, and resent even more the fact that Adele believes she knows enough about me after such a short acquaintance to be able to call my way of life “moral tragedy.”

Whether it really is or not is not the important question. In my letter, I tried my best to stem mounting anger. I fear that she will not write again. Although I hope against hope that she will. I need desperately to write to someone other than my sister and mother. The familiarity of what they say in every letter is becoming monotonous and is not in the least helpful. I am always disappointed when the letters I receive bear the familiar writing of my father’s or Evelyn’s green ink. And yet, I need their letters desperately.

In another entry, dated February 1, 1955, Felix further described his “self-consciousness” in social settings.

“A dream about dignity, it escapes me,” the notation begins. “The past few days I have been unable to concentrate on my dreams upon awakening although I know that I have dreamt. All the officers went to a dance tonight. I wanted to go, but knew that the evening would have been painful.”

Two weeks later, on February 15, Felix wrote again of his social anxiety. This time, it prevented him from attending a surprise party being thrown for the captain of his naval unit. According to the notation, Felix had accepted an offer by a friend named Dean to get him a date for the winter affair, knowing full well that he would not attend the event.

“This evening I told Dean with a smile that I would not be able to come,” Felix wrote. “I told him that there was an important reason, and he of course, misunderstood me.

“How can I tell anyone what the real reason is? Can I say to my friend, ‘Sorry, Dean, I cannot go because of my self-consciousness.’ It would make me utterly miserable. The girl would think I was crazy. I would have to laugh, and it would simply be too painful for me. This is what I would have had to say. How impossible my existence is.”

Felix also wrote about a letter he sent to his older sister, Evelyn, in which he tried to explain his state of being.

In this letter, I expressed what has long been turned over in my mind, i.e., the anger and guilt which I direct towards my parents for having made me what I am, a helpless, utterly self-conscious and miserable individual.

Instead of the closeness I once felt for my parents, there is now anger and resentment. The guilt, which I once felt for their sake, I have emplanted [sic] in them. Mother’s letters now leave me with a cruel kind of coldness. In the letter, I announced my determination to sever, although not entirely, relations with Harrison [Felix’s hometown in New York].

Perhaps this sounds dramatic, yet it must be so. I also told EV [Evelyn] that I felt myself to be basically a simple individual who has by accident had a complex personality thrown on his rather weak body. And this is exactly my feeling. The simplicity and sometimes naivitee [sic] of my desires, thoughts and pleasures are a violent contrast to the complexity of my psychic structure. It is as if my psychic existence and my true nature were two separate entities joined by a foolish or blind will. Where I asked to choose between discarding my simplicity and my personality, there would not really be a choice.

At twenty-three, Felix was slowly coming apart, yet, his silent suffering only magnified his problems. He had never dealt with the psychological trauma he suffered as a young boy in war-torn Europe. There was much secrecy surrounding the horrific crimes of World War II, and there was no counseling available to the tens of thousands of victims. Those lucky enough to have survived received no special treatment.

Everybody was expected to go on. And outwardly, most did.

In September of 1955, the navy transferred Felix back to a base in Brooklyn, New York, for shore duty. He was unhappy with the assignment and unhappy to be back home. His only consolation was that he could resume therapy with Dr. Goldstein. According to the doctor’s records later obtained by the U.S. Navy, Felix attended ten sessions with the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist recorded that he was “agitated,” “depressed,” and “concerned over sexual problems,” “lacked an interest in a career,” and “was preoccupied with philosophical and cosmic concepts.”

A sexual history complied by Dr. Goldstein during his sessions with Felix disclosed that Felix began masturbating at the age of twelve, but “masturbated with guilt” and “felt confused regarding sexual facts until fifteen years of age.” He began dating at sixteen, and by the age of twenty, was involved in a relationship with a well-to-do aspiring actress. We’ll call her Fannie.

Felix’s guilt over masturbation and confusion over sexual gender were not remarkable since about 50 percent of American males reportedly experience those same feelings, according to experts. What was unusual was that, since puberty, Felix had been obsessed with his sister, Evelyn.

“Incestuous fantasies involving his older sister have preoccupied him since adolescence,” Dr. Goldstein noted in his official report.

It is interesting that Evelyn was fifteen when Felix began to fantasize about her—the same age that Susan was when she first went to see him in 1972.

On Friday, October 14, 1955, Felix met with Dr. Goldstein but his session did not appear to lift his spirits, and the following day, he felt no better. While torrential rainfall and high winds only added to his gloom, he had a date that night in Manhattan, so he forced himself to get dressed, pack a bag, and make the forty-mile drive to the city.

It was 5:30 PM when Felix met Fannie for their date. Although he wasn’t in love with her, he enjoyed her company. She put him at ease and allowed him to be himself. He had gotten tickets to La Ronde, a performance based on the 1897 play Der Reigen (Hands Around) by Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler. The story begins with the seduction of a soldier by a prostitute, who transmits syphilis during their encounter. The disease is then passed on to each subsequent and interconnected character in subsequent acts until it finally reaches the Count who, in the end, makes love to the prostitute from the first scene, thus closing the circle. The play was still considered somewhat risqué and had sparked outrage when it was first performed in Germany in the early part of the twentieth century. It had been labeled “obscene,” and for a time, was banned from the theater.

As the performance progressed, Felix confided to Fannie that he was seeing a psychiatrist and had an appointment the previous day. Fannie noticed that he seemed more glib than his usual somber self. During his previous visit to New York, he had confided his unhappiness at home—due, primarily, to his relationship with his mother. Now, he seemed more displeased with his naval assignment to Brooklyn and expressed his desire to be stationed somewhere in Europe.

Smiling, Felix turned to Fannie and announced that he had contemplated suicide.

Staring back, Fannie giggled. He couldn’t be serious, she thought, he was grinning when he made the pronouncement.

“I’ve already tried it once,” he announced. Felix said he had actually turned on the gas burners in his house, but while waiting for death, “had grown bored with the whole thing.”

Unsure how to respond, Fannie grabbed his hand to comfort him and recounted the story of her brother’s suicide several months earlier while he was on active duty in the army. As Fannie told the sad tale, she found Felix’s response worrisome. Suddenly, he was listening very intently, inquiring about every detail, particularly regarding the method her brother had employed.

After the theater, Felix and Fannie returned to her place where they spent the night together. The following afternoon, they attended a matinee featuring Marcel Marceau, but once the film ended, Felix became frighteningly sullen and announced that he wanted to go home.

“Call me the minute you get to Harrison,” Fannie begged when he dropped her off around 5:30 that Sunday evening. She knew that his parents, Eric and Johanna Polk, had traveled to Rochester for the weekend to visit their daughter, Evelyn. With Felix’s brother, John, stationed overseas, there would be no one at home to look after him.

Felix sounded increasingly dejected when he telephoned from Harrison just after 7 PM. Worried, Fannie phoned him again later that evening. She was relieved when he picked up the line just after 10 PM, but became distraught as she listened.

“It’s too late for the world,” Felix repeated over and over into the receiver. “Too late, too late.”

Fannie tried to console Felix, but he soon admonished “don’t call back anymore” and hung up the phone.

Frantic, and convinced that Felix was in trouble, Fannie begged her mother to phone the police.

It was nearing 10:30 PM when Felix sat down at the typewriter. He felt compelled to release his emotions on paper:

I have done what for a long time, I know I must do. When a rock is thrown into water it sinks. It must sink, as now must I. My minds (sic) is so heavy with wretchedness, with utter loneliness, with an unknown past, a frightening future and an intolerable past present that no choice remains. I don’t fear death at all. What it is, but non-life. And what is life but a continuous torture? This final act is not sudden or impetuous. I have known that someday it would take place. The question has only been, where, when, and how. Until a few weeks ago, there has always been some spark, some hope, which prevented me from the obvious. This night there is no hope. There is nothing; and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Of regrets, I have few. It would be folly for anyone to assume the blame for something of which I myself and no one else is responsible. I say goodbye to a hateful world with a smile. In life, I hated pity and in death I want none. Had I not come this far in life my loss would perhaps have been easier. I have forgotten the world and now the world much [sic] forget me.

Rising from the desk, Felix grabbed the keys to the family car. Feeling stronger than he had in a long time, he took one last look around and headed for the garage. Sliding into the passenger seat, he put the key into the ignition and started the engine. The hum of the motor was comforting, and he felt great relief that he had the courage to do what he wanted to do so many times before.

Police records show that an anonymous call came into the Harrison Police Department sometime after 11 PM that Sunday night, October 16. The female caller did not give her name; she was just a concerned citizen who wanted to report a “possible suicide” at 308 Harrison Avenue, the home of Eric and Johanna Polk.

Officer Pat Pizarello responded to the “mysterious phone call” and “lights on” dispatch to the Polk residence. Armed with a flashlight, he began to examine the grounds. Hearing a noise coming from inside the garage, he flung open the door to find the space filled with carbon monoxide gas. There was a car parked inside with its motor running and Felix was on the floor adjacent to the car’s front right wheel. At one point, he had been in the passenger seat but had apparently slipped to the garage floor when he became unconscious.

“I had suicidal thoughts before but never thought I’d have nerve enough to try it,” Felix later told psychiatrists at the U.S. Naval Hospital at St. Albans, New York.

Ironically, Felix Polk would be murdered 46 years later, almost to the day.