by Virginia McCullough

The murder trial of housewife, mother and defense attorney Susan Polk centers on the character of deceased husband, father and psychologist Dr. Frank Felix Polk.  Was 70-year-old Dr. Polk a violent, abusive man fighting to reign in a wife who no longer wanted to stay in a relationship that was growing uglier with each passing day?  Or was Susan Mae Polk a pampered, greedy wife now intent on leaving her husband and children to start her own life regardless of the harm to her family?

Prosecutor Paul Sequeria, who inherited this case on the eve of trial following the sudden departure of former prosecutor Tom O'Connor, has adhered to the original theory of the case leaked to the media within days of Susan Polk's arrest.  The speculation supplied to the press with the court's acquiescence hyped the argument that Susan Polk, 26 years younger then her husband, was angry when her alimony payments were slashed from over $6,000 a month to under $2,000 a month.  Contra Costa County Commissioner Josanna A. Berkow also ordered custody of the minor child Gabriel and possession of the family home given to Felix Polk.  The order was issued ex parte while Susan Polk was out of state.  Former prosecutor O'Connor argued in his opening statement during the first murder trial of Susan Polk that these issues motivated Susan Polk to plan and execute the killing of her husband.

Attorneys Daniel Horowitz and Ivan Golde represented Susan Polk from August 2005 until a mistrial was declared by Judge Laurel Brady shortly after the brutal murder of Pamela Vitale, the wife of lead attorney Daniel Horowitz.  The Vitale murder occurred just days after the opening statements were delivered in the first case.

Susan Polk, now representing herself, has always claimed that her husband attacked her and she killed him in self defense.  Assuming that the only two people present in the pool house of the family estate when Felix Polk died were the husband and wife, details of the fatal struggle later related by the survivor stand as the only direct indication of what occurred.

Written statements alluding to the character of Dr. Felix Polk and his wife are contained in the Polk divorce file FLMS D01-01732.  This civil action contains a three page declaration by Susan Polk detailing the five most recent incidents of violence against her by her husband.  These events included one event that occurred in October 2000 and four other occurrences during January and March of 2001 escalating as Susan Polk continually made clear that she wanted out of the marriage.

Dr. Polk responded through his attorney, stating in part in paragraph four of a four page declaration, the following:

I have never physically abused, or hit in any manner, the Petitioner.  I categorically deny that allegation.  I also believe that I have never emotionally abused her in any way.  What I hope to make clear to the court is that for the past three years I and our sons have been living in a sort of emotional hell with Petitioner becoming more and more explosive and delusional.  I have been trying to save our marriage and protect the boys at the same time.  I now see that that will not be possible.

Felix Polk then points out to the court that he is a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from Berkeley with a substantial practice and that he teaches at the American School of Psychology.

Dr. Polk's declaration requests custody of the couple's three sons, Alan, Eli and Gabriel Polk, ages 18, 15 and 14 respectively.  Regarding visitation he says "petitioner to have visitation as agreed with the children and myself on a temporary basis."

This documents also speaks to spousal support by saying "I am perfectly willing to pay guideline temporary spousal support and to make sure that Petitioner has sufficient funds pending a hearing on this matter. Since she has been staying at the Claremont she has been utilizing community funds and credit cards, to which I have no objection at this time."

Dr. Polk surrounded himself with friends and colleagues in the same profession as himself.  Testimony in open court has been given that Susan Polk had few friends apart from those who frequented Felix's professional circle.  Her husband was a brilliant man, well read and a hard worker whose dedication to new knowledge kept him abreast with the state of the art in his field.  Susan Polk, a devoted mother, is a quick learner, frequently referred to as highly intelligent by Judge Laurel Brady.  Surrounded by countless books, well educated social friends and three energetic sons, the Polks held their marriage together for almost twenty years.

Now the father is dead and the mother faces life in prison for his murder.  Did domestic violence drive the fatal wedge between husband and wife?  If so, should two highly intelligent people have been able to prevent the crisis?

The following article describes the type of escalating behavior that might have resulted in the murder of Dr. Felix Polk.


The media blitz resulting from the arrest of O. J. Simpson on murder charges has raised consciousness about the problem of domestic violence-spouse abuse in particular.  The key of effective intervention is to help the couple identify early warning signs that a conflict is escalating into a physical altercation so they can interrupt the cycle before violence occurs.  In treating hundreds of couples whose problems involve spouse abuse, researchers have identified four phases in this cycle.

The first phase begins when a specific event causes the husband to sulk or withdraw from his wife.  The wife notices, and begins asking him what's wrong.  His refusal to respond leads her to try harder to reach him.  He may then feel nagged and will avoid her, which in turn leads her to pursue him further.

The second phase begins when the husband turns on the offensive and starts an argument.  He may accuse his wife of nagging him. He may say that she always brings up issues at the wrong time.  He may compare her to his x-wife, his former lover, or his mother. He tells her to leave him alone, but she persists in trying to reach him.

Phase three begins when the husband starts to get physical-shoving the furniture and throwing dishes.  He's constantly in motion, looking for an object on which to vent his frustration.  He may push his wife away from him, hurl accusations at her, or hit her, causing her to break into a flood of tears.  In most cases, the violence stops there.  The husband starts to feel guilty, apologizes, and they make up.  This reconciliation is often followed by intense sexual relations that both of them say are the best they've every had.

In the worse case, a fourth phase ensues before the couple can reconcile.  The insanely jealous husband may decide that murder is the only solution. He may feel that if he can't have his wife, no one else can either.  This phase is extremely dangerous and may result in death or serious injury to the wife and her family or friends of the couple's children, neighbors, or co-workers.

Effective intervention with these couples depends on identifying the triggers that set off the cycle.  A marital therapist can trace the precipitating events for each episode of violence and enlist the couple in pinpointing stressors.  Common triggers are alcohol, financial concerns, conflict with a boss or supervisors, arguments with parents, jealousy or suspicion about the spouse's whereabouts, and childrearing problems.

It is essential for the couple to learn how to interrupt the cycle.  If the trigger leads to phase one or two, both parties can calm down by going to separate rooms and sleeping in separate beds.

If the conflict progresses to the third phase, one of them must leave the house and sleep elsewhere.  The next day, they can talk by phone to see if things have cooled down enough for the absent partner to return.  Before then, they should meet in public to ensure that calm will prevail.  If not, the one who left must stay away longer.  (Although both spouses help perpetuate the cycle, the wife should not be excused from responsibility for maintaining control.)

Why do these wives usually stay with their husbands.  Financial survival is the major factor.  Many wives also believe their husbands to be essentially good men with some bad traits that can be changed.  Finally, the reconciliation period produces intense sexual excitement and recaptures the earlier romantic phase through gifts, candlelight dinners, and flowers.

Source: Martin J. Kirschenbaum, Ph.D., Director, Lafayette Couples Resource Center, Lafayette, California. The Menninger Letter.

The author of the preceding article is Dr. Martin J. Kirschenbaum, world renown family therapist and author.  Together with his co-author of The Dynamic Family, Dr. Kirschenbaum laid "the foundation for a family treatment modality based on the concept of the Growth Model. In brief, the Growth Model incorporates the idea of "positive intentionality" developed by Virginia Satir (author of Peoplemaking) which asserts that individuals intend to grow and develop no matter what the obstacles, or the damage done to mind, body or soul." [Source: Thoughts of Being by Fred Schreier published in The International Child and Youth Care Network, October 2003, Issue 57]

Dr. Martin J. Kirschenbaum was also a very close friend and associate of the late Dr. Felix Polk.  Dr. Kirchenbaum's name has come up often in the murder trial of Susan Polk.

Virginia McCullough © 4/30/06