A few months ago, a family member suggested that if a therapist married the patient he was having sex with, well, wouldn’t that make it better?
It was all I could do to keep from screaming. I think I managed to get out a slightly strangled “No! Oh my God, no!” before my defense mechanisms took over and removed my emotional self from the conversation.
(The horror…the horror…)
Hmm, let’s see… Let’s take an abusive relationship—and make it legally binding! Let’s make it a zillion times harder for a victim to leave her abuser! What a great idea!
Yes, I’m still extremely peeved by that little exchange, and it’s been hard for me to let it go. I keep thinking of all the much more articulate ways I could have responded to this person, things I could have said to help her understand. Perhaps if I had more clearly explained the dynamics involved in therapist abuse and exploitation and how……….. Uh, no. Since I’m not sure that she actually wants to understand anything about therapist abuse, I doubt that anything I could have said would have made that much of a difference.
(Let it go…just let it go…)
I can’t help but think about the case of Susan Polk (remember her?) who was convicted of killing her husband, Felix Polk, who had been her therapist when she met him at the age of 15. Although she claimed to have killed him in self-defense, Polk was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 16 years to life in state prison, the maximum sentence possible under the law.
At the time it happened, in 2002, I probably wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to the news, but I honestly don’t remember anyone making a very big deal about the fact that he had been her therapist. When I caught a Dateline NBC segment on her story several years later, I was in the middle of my lawsuit against Dr. T. I sat, glued to the TV, unable to tear myself away from it.
Here is part of the transcript. Just reading it gives me chills and makes my heart start pounding.
Excerpt from Dateline NBC transcript “Why did Susan Polk kill her husband?”
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. He 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.
(Read the rest of the transcript here.)
* * *
I remember watching the TV thinking, That could have been me.
Now, could I really have killed Dr. T if he had made our “relationship” official and I had had to live under his control, submitting to his manipulations for who knows how long? Perhaps. More likely I would have tried to kill myself or gone not so quietly insane.
I thank God I got out. I thank God that, despite my truly wanting children, he never got me pregnant.
Can you imagine?
Now, I’m not Susan Polk, and I don’t pretend to know what really happened between her and her husband. (Though I could guess…) But just think about what might happen if a manipulative, narcissistic, abusive therapist married his victim. Could she ever get out? And, if she did, would she ever be truly free of him? What if they had kids? Wouldn’t she be tied to him forever, a perpetual victim of his abuse and manipulation? What might become of her?
It’s horrifying to imagine.
I will say this again and again until people start to get it:
A therapist having sex with a patient or client is not an affair or any kind of normal peer sexual relationship. An “affair” is something that takes place between two consenting adults with equal power. Therapists and their patients do not share equal power, and therefore, there can be no consensual sexual relationship between them. Any sexual relationship between a therapist and a patient is exploitive and can have serious, life-altering consequences for the patient.
While I understand the impulse to legitimize the “relationship” and make things not look so bad, NO ONE BENEFITS from not taking therapist abuse and exploitation seriously. It doesn’t help hold perpetrators accountable, it certainly doesn’t help victims heal, and it does absolutely nothing to foster awareness and keep other patients safe.
Come on folks, wake up.