True Crime Face-off
Susan Polk, the Orinda housewife convicted of killing her psychologist husband, Felix, is the subject of two new true-crime books: Final Analysis by Catherine Crier, formerly of Court TV, and Seduced by Madness by Orinda writer Carol Pogash. Which book best explains why the Polk marriage ended in murder, not divorce court? Here’s the rundown.
The madness of Ms. Polk: Polk, who acted as her own attorney during her trial, denied she was mentally ill and claimed she stabbed her husband in self-defense. Both books use Polk’s private writings and public statements to show she was a troubled teen who grew into a brilliant but complicated woman burdened with wild, paranoid convictions.
Fools for love: Crier writes that Holocaust survivor Felix was a 25-years-older Svengali who lured a pretty, fragile teen into a sexual relationship when she was his patient, then emotionally and possibly physically battered her into making her stay with him. Pogash describes the Polks as an outwardly attractive pair obsessively drawn to each other by their shared love of literature and fine living, as well as their codependent personalities.
Who was the victim? Crier describes scenes of Polk being assaulted and bullied by her husband, while Pogash questions how much physical abuse actually took place in the Polk home and paints Polk as anything but a submissive housewife. Pogash depicts Polk’s delusions as having the power to hold Felix and their three sons hostage in a nest of dysfunction.
Oops: Maybe it was the rush to get her work published first, but Crier’s book contains factual errors. For example, Crier states that Felix’s office on Ashby Avenue was just blocks away from his home near Arlington Circle, which is actually on the other end of Berkeley.
Author, author? That Crier’s book carries a coauthor credit indicates she had some—or considerable—help researching and writing. Courtroom insiders tell Diablo that Crier didn’t cover much of the four-month trial. She has told us that her book is based mainly on interviews with Polk and her three sons.
The verdict: Read Pogash’s book. Crier’s book is readable, but some of the trial sections come off as retreads of Court TV. Pogash uses detailed descriptions of the major players to create compelling, three-dimensional figures. Her book also touches on East Bay social history and puts events into context, explaining, for example, how the sexual politics and psychiatric views of the early 1970s would not have made it entirely taboo for Felix Polk to have developed a personal relationship with a patient.