As Susan Polk sat in jail accused of murdering her psychologist husband Felix, allegations about her sanity swirled around her. Was it sane that she rejected the lawyers who wanted her to plead not guilty by reason of insanity?
In fact, she was telling the world that she would represent herself in court. She rejected any suggestion that she was mentally ill.
The secret story she now intended to tell, she believed, would not only convince a jury of her innocence, it would explode myths about her husband, her marriage and how she was treated as a troubled teen back in 1972.
Morrison: Why did you agree to marry him?
Susan Polk: I think I was kind of under a spell— you know, like a love potion type of thing.
Morrison: How did you two meet?
Susan Polk: Well, that is a question that I wasn’t able to answer—truthfully to people for a very long time, and it was embarrassing—
Morrison: Kind of a secret you carried around?
Susan Polk: Yes, it was. My husband was my psychotherapist and I met him when I was 15.
Morrison: How old were you?
Susan Polk: I was 15.
And thus, said Susan, entered the poison that would destroy everything. 15. A girl with issues about school, her mother sent her to see a therapist she’d heard good things about. His name? Felix Polk. At the time Felix was 40 and married with two children.
Helen Bolling, Susan Polk’s mother: He gave me confidence that he could do the right thing for Susan.
In the early going, it seemed that this therapy was working out just fine.
Bolling: I brought her and she responded—almost instantaneous—very favorably. And I was overjoyed.
But as their sessions continued, Susan revealed something very disturbing...
Bolling: She said something about sitting on his lap. And I kind of—
Morrison: Sitting on his lap?
Bolling: Yes. That’s right. That’s right. See, you got it the same way I got it. I said, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound right.” 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.
Why didn’t she intervene? Now, of course, too late, she would move heaven and earth to go back in time. But then, then she didn’t feel she could question a psychologist. She couldn’t bring herself to say what she knew that something wasn’t right.
Morrison: How did it turn into something other than just therapy?
Susan Polk: Well, that’s a question that kind of is unpleasant. I think looking back, what I recall is that my husband asked me if I would consent to be hypnotized. I would walk in, he’d give me a cup of tea, next thing I’d know I’d look at the clock and the hour was gone and I couldn’t remember what had happened. And for many years, I just didn’t think about it.
Morrison: This happened for years?
Susan Polk: Yes. Well— I started seeing him when I was 15, I never stopped.
She says Felix hypnotized and drugged her during their sessions. She became to the teenager, therapist and lover at the same time. At least until one particular session of group therapy:
Susan Polk: And I just announced to the group that my— "Felix and I," I said, "are lovers." And that was like pulling off a mask, he was enraged at me.
If what Susan says is true, Felix had not just broken the law by committing statutory rape on a patient, he had violated one of the most sacred standards of his profession.
Felix stopped treating Susan as a patient eventually, but the romantic relationship continued.
Then, a few years later, when she was away at college, Susan claims, she tried break it off.
Susan Polk: I said, “I don’t want to be with you anymore.” And he broke into tears on the phone and threatened suicide.
Bolling: I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a man crying, but it’s very very touching. It’s unnerving. She couldn’t leave him.
Susan Polk: That really scared me. And it pulled me back into the relationship.
Morrison: He was kind of a puppet master in a way?
Susan Polk: I think he imagined himself to be something like that that. He was, with hypnosis, and control and conditioning like behavioral modification, creating his model wife.
By the time Susan was 25 years old, Felix was 50. He left his wife and kids and the two got married. Helen called Felix’s ex-wife to apologize.
Bolling: Somehow she didn’t blame Susan. And she warned me about Felix.
Morrison: What do you mean?
Bolling: Yeah. It was, kind of, she said "Felix always has to appear like the good guy." And I didn’t quite know, you know, it’s kind of a cryptic. But I listened. And I remembered it. Now I know what she means.
Early in the marriage, Susan says she too learned what that message meant— Felix, she says, was decidedly in charge.
Susan Polk: He expected me to be a very feminine person. And feminine for him meant submissive, that you know—that I wouldn’t oppose his will in virtually anything. So, for example, if I moved a picture from one wall to another without him being there, he’d be upset about that. He’d be really upset about it.
As time went on, Susan claims Felix became more controlling.
Hypnotizing his sons
Eli says as he and his brothers grew up, a pattern familiar to his mother began to repeat itself— their father, Eli claims, exerted the same kind of control over them and became, says Eli, their therapist, too.
Morrison: He hypnotized you?
Eli Polk: Yes he did.
Eli Polk: I don’t know.
Morrison: But what was he trying’ to cure?
Eli Polk: I think the question is what was he was trying to instill in us at that point.
Morrison: How can you have a regular session with a psychologist when the psychologist is your father?
Eli Polk: I don’t know. I was 9 or 10 years old. So I don’t know.
Morrison: But this was supposedly a session?
Eli Polk: Yes. This was—
Morrison: A real session?
Eli Polk: And it was all three of my brothers.
Over the years, say Susan and Eli, Felix’s struggle for control became angrier, more physical.
Eli Polk: I mean my father was crazed.
Eli Polk: Crazed.
Morrison: He’d hit you?
Eli Polk: Yes.
Morrison: Did he hit your brothers?
Eli Polk: Yes, he did.
Keith Morrison: A lot?
Eli Polk: A fair amount.
Keith Morrison: Did he hit your mother?
Eli Polk: Yes, he did. I saw him hit her—the black eyes, dragging her by the hair up the stairs to their room. What people need to understand is it was a constant physical threat. He would do something which people call "charging." Where he would walk right up to somebody, whether it’s my mom, me, my little brother, or my older brother. And say, "This is how it is" and proceed to back that person up against the wall. That was constant. That was every day.
Morrison: Including your mother?
Eli Polk: Yes. My mom especially.
When the boys were teenagers, Susan said she’d had enough. She could no longer suppress her feelings about her decades-old secret and told Felix she wanted out.
Susan Polk: And I turned to him and I said, “You hypnotized me. I can’t live with you anymore.” And he was like, “Oh boy—he knew I knew.” And he said, “You better think about the consequences. You better think about the consequences to the children.” And that just paralyzed me with fear.
Bolling: He was afraid that if they broke up, she would talk about what had happened between him and her.
Morrison: The inappropriate relationship—
Morrison: And that that could cost him his license?
And after Susan filed for divorce, she claims Felix was the one coming unhinged and lashing out.
Susan Polk: I mean, he would do this constant verbal and physical kind of—you know—intimidation and assault. And if the kids joined it at all in support of me, like “Dad—you know—we want to live with mom,” that kind of thing then he would say, “If you line up with your mom, you’re dead.”
Morrison: Was that going on in your house?
Eli Polk: I think my dad definitely tried to break my mom. I really do. He did try to break my mom.
But then, says Eli, his father tried to break him, too. The year before the killing, Felix, says Eli, pushed authorities to lock him up in a juvenile detention center over a fist fight. He was inside for months and was there when his father was killed.
Eli is 20 years old now. He supported his mother in the divorce. He supports her now. It’s her story he believes.
Eli Polk: I believe he became violent with her. I believe he exploded that night and attacked my mother.
Morrison: It’s a plausible story to you?
Eli Polk: It’s not just a plausible story, I’m sure it’s what happened. I mean, he had done so many times before, though this time I believe he wanted to kill her.
That’s why Susan was determined to claim she killed her husband in self defense.
A forensic psychologist examined her and said she was competent to stand trial and she was determined to represent herself in court too, until less than a month before the trial was to begin, she agreed to allow attorney Daniel Horowitz to take over the case. And as he prepared, he says, he discovered a bomb shell.
Daniel Horowitz, lawyer for Susan Polk: She killed him for one reason, he had a knife in his hand and if she didn’t take it from him and defended herself, she would be dead.
But as she sits here calmly telling her story of self-defense, the people in her corner soon will have some very tough questions to answer.
Morrison: Which one of the 27 wounds was not intended to be a killing wound?