Berkeley psychologist Felix Polk knew his sons’ piano teacher really well. Same with the baby sitter and many of his friends who came to dinner at his home on a regular basis. They were all his patients. It’s not surprising that at some point in his career, he met a patient whom he decided to marry, Susan Bolling.
It is this image of an untraditional therapist who lacked boundaries and developed personal relationships with his patients that Carol Pogash depicts in Seduced by Madness, her new book that covers the Susan Polk murder case: “Felix didn’t think that he should be a transparent sounding board on whom the patient could project qualities that could help him. Rather, he saw himself as a friend who talked about himself and involved many of his patients in his life.”
At age 44, 20 years into their marriage, Susan Polk stabbed 70-year-old Felix Polk to death in the backyard cottage of their estate in Orinda, Calif. The topic prepares readers for a true crime saga in one of the wealthiest towns in Contra Costa County. However, Pogash did not need to focus on cliff-hanging suspense. She crafted an exceptional piece of literary journalism using interviews with the Polks’ family and friends, as well as Felix Polk’s former patients and colleagues.
Pogash first tells the story of a man 25 years older than his wife, who loved her so much that despite knowing the dangers she posed, he could not stay away from her. She follows it with the tale of a woman who engineered one of the strangest trials ever in court—committing antics such as telling the judge that the prosecutor needed a spanking and eliciting testimony from her son on the witness stand that she was being absurd in representing herself.
As depicted in Pogash’s book, Susan Polk was a shy teenager with few friends when she met her future husband. They married, and she became the gracious hostess at her husband’s parties.
The Orinda housewife appears, early in her marriage, to be a fantasy: an attractive, somewhat naive, but highly intelligent woman who wants one man whom she idolizes and worships. Felix Polk appears to be the ultimate controller, but not in a sinister way. He has control over Susan Polk because she admires and emotionally depends on him as her wise therapist.
People in their circles saw Felix as warm and Susan, cordial. She focused her entire life on raising her three children.
She first became paranoid in the early 1980s, when she formed an organization to stop what she believed to be satanic cults running preschools. Over the next 10 years, her delusions extended to a conviction that Felix Polk was turning judges and law enforcement against the family.
Pogash’s qualifications to tell the Polk story go beyond her being a veteran journalist for the San Francisco Examiner. She has the street cred of being a longtime Orinda resident. Having covered this case for the Times, I also grew intimate with the facts and characters.
Pogash got them right, pulled them together and wove a narrative that brings you into the scenes. Her descriptions of towns, people and even rooms are vivid; from Polk’s middle son, who “looked as though he had spent the day crying,” to her depiction of Polk’s former attorney Daniel Horowitz as a media spin doctor who “checked TV’s online overnight ratings the way some folks do the temperature.”
I never saw Pogash miss a day of court. She dedicates about 40 percent of Seduced to the trial, offering a glimpse into the craziness Susan Polk caused as she acted as her own attorney and fought with the judge, the prosecutor and many witnesses.
The single element of Pogash’s story I had a difficult time believing was the depth of love that Felix Polk had for his wife. Susan Polk conveys charm. She can, at times, seem so down-to-earth. But I spent months in court watching her spew insults with such frequency that she appeared to be brimming with hate. It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling so dedicated to her.
But perhaps that is exactly what makes Pogash’s book so powerful, as it evokes in us that universal bafflement we feel over the tortured relationships some other people endure.
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