Verdict: Not Guilty
Susan Bolling was a troubled fifteen-year-old when a counselor at her high school referred her to Berkeley psychologist Felix Polk, an expert in adolescent behavior. The ninth grader suffered from panic attacks and had been skipping classes, preferring to stay home and read the Russian classics.
In 1973, a year later, Susan now says, she and Felix were having sex.
For a time, they kept the affair secret. Felix, after all, was married with two children. He also was 25 years older than Susan, and could have been arrested for statutory rape. Although a therapist legally could sleep with a patient back then -- California didn't criminalize such behavior until 1990 -- it certainly would have raised ethical red flags. When Felix' other patients found out, they felt betrayed. One former patient, Joel Tepper, recalls that during a group therapy session during the '70s, Susan referred to Felix as her lover. Upon hearing this, Tepper stormed angrily out of the session. "I think it was very unprofessional that he did that -- I still do," he says now. In his view, Felix undermined the therapy group's integrity by conducting his secret affair. Tepper and the other patients already suspected Felix gave Susan preferential treatment, but didn't know why. Now they did. Tepper still liked Felix, though, and started seeing him again about a year later, one-on-one. "He was just a terrific guy and a terrific therapist," he says.
Susan's mother, Helen Bolling, eventually found out about her daughter's affair with the much older psychologist. She became suspicious when Susan reported that she sat on Felix' lap during their sessions. "I said, 'Wait a minute, that doesn't sound right,'" Bolling recalled on NBC's Dateline. "But then I said, 'Well, maybe that's the way they do it now.' See, I had an answer for everything. But I did wonder."
She didn't wonder for long. According to Horowitz, Susan's lawyer, the teen coyly informed her mother that she was dating "a doctor." Helen figured out that the "doctor" was Felix. In court last month, Horowitz said that Helen asked Felix to stop seeing her daughter. After all, he had a wife his own age, a pianist who had studied at the prestigious Juilliard School. But Felix didn't want a wife who was his equal, Horowitz argues. "He needed worship," the lawyer said in his opening statement, "not a wife."
In spite of his promise to Helen, Felix couldn't stay away from her daughter. In this young, impressionable girl he found his worshipper. She was someone he could control and recruit for the "cult of Felix," as Horowitz put it. Susan has often claimed she was "programmed" by her late husband. Felix later divorced his first wife and married Susan, who was then 25.
Felix Polk's defenders say he was a kind man and a good if unconventional therapist. A longtime patient recalled that in the '70s Felix raved about the controversial personal-growth movement known as EST, and recommended the organization's training course. Dr. Polk also socialized with his patients outside the doctor-patient relationship. Even those who loved Felix -- and suspect Susan is guilty -- acknowledge that he had trouble maintaining professional boundaries. Many of his former patients have described Felix as more than their therapist -- they called him a friend. Joel Tepper was one of those people.
Tepper remembers being invited over to the Polks' house one year for Thanksgiving. For about seven years, Tepper says, he gave weekly piano lessons to the three Polk boys in their home. He continued the lessons until Adam, the eldest, was a senior at De La Salle -- in other words, up until a year or two before Felix' death. In that whole time, Tepper says, "I never experienced anything but a normal, loving family."
Susan Polk says this experience couldn't be further from the truth. Behind closed doors, she says, Felix was a volatile control freak. For years he kept his office at their home so he could keep an eye on his wife. He didn't like Susan paying attention to anyone -- or anything -- but him. "My husband was very jealous of the attention I paid to my children and my dogs," Susan wrote the court earlier this year. "He had threatened repeatedly to kill me if I ever left him, and he had threatened to 'destroy' the children when they supported me. My husband had, I believe, killed two of my dogs to intimidate me in the past."
The way Susan tells the couple's story, Felix treated her like a child and pitted their sons against her to keep her in line. There was a particularly ugly incident in October 2000. The two got into an argument and Felix ordered her to go to her room "as if I was an unruly child," she wrote in a divorce-court declaration. When she refused, Susan said, he dragged her up the stairs by her hair. At the top of the stairs, Susan says Felix raised his fist, declaring he felt like hitting her. Instead, their then-fifteen-year-old son Eli, a rugby player, jumped in and punched her in the face, splitting her lip open. "Look what you've done to your son," Felix yelled, according to Susan's declaration.
It's because of incidents such as this that Eli, now twenty, believes his mother acted in self-defense: "He would tell me, 'Over my dead body will your mother leave me.'" Eli says Felix regularly hit Susan as well as the children -- one time his father punched him and knocked him to the ground. He also says his father heaped psychological abuse on his mom, constantly accusing her of being crazy: "He said, 'You're a sick puppy, Susan, and someone should put you out of your misery. '"
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