I saw the car first. A beat-up gold sedan, slipping under a street lamp, slowing to a quiet roll as I walked down the darkened sidewalk.
It was 5 a.m. and I'd been hoping to beat L.A. traffic (a girl can dream) and catch an early workout before another day of the working-actor hustle. I'd walked the two blocks between my car and the gym every day for years. They felt second-nature safe, filled with fancy houses, world-famous museums, even Kardashian Central Command (aka E! Network headquarters).
But not a soul was stirring in those early hours last January. Just me and the hulking man with a shaved head driving at an increasingly terrifying crawl behind me. I glanced back to see his car stopped in the middle of the street. As I started to feel wary — don't be dramatic, he's probably lost, only a few feet to the gym, you took self-defense in Girl Scouts — I heard his door creak open.
Before I could gasp, he lunged out of the car and grabbed me, pointing a sawed-off shotgun at my face. I kept hoping I'd wake up from a nightmare, but I could clearly see the icy blue color of his eyes just inches from my own and feel the pinch of his fingers as he tightened his grip on my arm. Every cell in my body was awake and on fire with fear.
"You give me that purse or I'm gonna blow your fucking head off."
Months later, the therapist I began seeing after I couldn't stop hearing those words over and over in my head would describe this as a moment of chaos.
Before that morning, I thought I had tasted chaos: merging onto the 405 in rush hour, riding the emotional Death Star that is an acting career in L.A., accidentally liking an ex's photo on Instagram... twice. Until that day, I habitually questioned whether I was strong enough to navigate certain trials in my life. (Especially the 405.)
But the real etymology of chaos, my therapist explained, comes from two Chinese symbols: danger and opportunity. Somehow, after a lifetime of self-doubt, it took the terrifying reality check of a shotgun being aimed at my head to make me realize I wanted this opportunity to fight for my life. Staring into the barrel, I silently decided that I was worth fighting for.
Frozen with fear on the desolate sidewalk, however, I could only manage to do one thing: scream. The man yanked at the purse on my shoulder, but the strap slipped down and caught on my wrist. I lost my balance. I screamed and screamed until my throat was raw, but no one came to rescue me. I've never felt more alone.
The man still had my arm. He pulled me closer to him, only the length of the gun barrel between us. I looked into his pale eyes and felt the energy shift between us. I felt as if I were both in that moment and standing outside of myself, watching it happen. I understood, more than I've understood anything in my life, that if I didn't stop screaming and do what he wanted right that second, he was going to kill me.
A calm and commanding voice (that sounded suspiciously like my Soviet-style childhood gymnastics coach) spoke in my head: He's going to shoot you if you keep struggling. No one is coming to help you. Head up, Solnishka!
I went silent. The man ripped the bag off my wrist and shoved me to the ground: my right knee grinding into the pavement, my hands scraping the sidewalk. I let him. I lifted my chin a few inches and saw his feet retreating toward those gold fenders. And then his license plate, hovering right at eye level.
I gave myself two seconds to take in the numbers. Then, I pushed myself off the ground and sprinted.
I tensed my muscles the entire block to the gym, imagining him aiming the gun at my back. I didn't stop running until I made it through the glass doors and into the gym lobby. My only goal was to get close enough to the entrance so that if he pulled the trigger, someone would find me.
I stumbled to the front desk, spewing the license plate number over and over, gesturing for the receptionist to write it down. I managed to communicate that there was a man outside with a gun. She tossed me a pen and dialed 911. I scribbled the license plate number with shaking hands, along with every other detail seared in my brain: the man's gold car, his white t-shirt and long denim shorts, the bone-chilling authority of his voice.
A beat later, four LAPD officers materialized. Turns out there had been a spree of armed assaults and bank robberies in the area, all linked to a similar muscular guy with a shaved head, driving a gold sedan. They seemed almost gleeful when I handed them the license plate number.
Looking back, knowing what an even more horrifying twist the day would take, it's difficult to relive that scene.
A few minutes later, a dispatcher's garbled voice crackled on an officer's radio. "We found him. Unit in pursuit."
My sister collected me. I began canceling credit cards and she flicked on the TV to keep us distracted. A breaking news banner flashed across the screen: Hostage Situation in South Central L.A. Over shaky news chopper footage, a reporter announced that hostages were being held at gunpoint during a standoff with the LAPD S.W.A.T. "The situation began," she chirped, "when the suspect allegedly robbed a woman at gunpoint outside a fitness center a few hours earlier."
That woman was me. I felt like throwing up.
My sister's phone rang. It was the police asking for me to come look at mug shots. At the station, I repeated my story for two different detectives. They slid a photocopied sheet across the table to me.
I recognized the man right away. Not just his shaved head and striking eyes, but the aggressively threatening expression on his face.
Another officer popped his head in the room, caught my eye and gave me a thumbs-up. The detectives exchanged a look, and then started speaking to me in slow, simple sentences, as if I were a child. "He was a very bad man," they said. "He hurt a lot of people, robbed banks and assaulted numerous other women."
Apparently, he had taken multiple hostages shortly after my encounter with him. While I was driving to the station, a firefight had broken out between him and the S.W.A.T.
"The suspect is now deceased," the officer said.
All I could think was: I got a thumbs-up because a man is dead? And then: A man is dead because I remembered his license plate? Oh my God, did I get someone killed? They assured me that none of the other hostages had been hurt. They told me I'd done a good job getting the license plate and likely saving their lives. Then they gave me a juice box.
I thought my life would go right back to the way it was before. I didn't want to be a victim. I told myself to be grateful and move on. But without warning, I relived the assault. The man's face or voice would flash through my mind. I had panic attacks; fight-or-flight adrenaline surged through me at the slightest trigger. I was afraid all the time. In my dreams, night after night, my legs would stop working and he would shoot me.
I moved. I changed gyms. I started carrying pepper spray. I found the therapist who specialized in victims of violent crime. Intellectually, I understood that I was experiencing the temporary extremes of PTSD, but I couldn't fully process it emotionally.
For months, I couldn't even explain what was going on to friends. I gave up trying. My crippling anxiety seemed irrational; I felt ashamed and completely numb. Everything familiar now felt foreign — I was an alien in my own life. I'd find myself in the fetal position on the floor and think, How did I get here? I should be over this by now.
And then, one morning, as I sat at my desk looking out at the blinding California sun, seeing only the darkness of that morning playing out yet again in my mind, an unlikely image flashed across my consciousness. I closed my eyes and conjured it again: a forsaken mermaid abandoned in the desert, vulnerable, completely displaced and unable to run away. This forlorn creature — most certainly inspired by my recurring paralysis nightmares — was jarring enough that I started making notes. And sketching. And Googling the latest in seashell bra design.
It was instant. Everything I'd been unable to communicate for so long poured out of me, and I suddenly struggled to keep up with myself.
I drove to Salton Sea, a nearly-abandoned desert town 200 miles outside of L.A., and meticulously plotted locations, set-ups and specific shots for a photo series. Inspired by my Southern California setting and ethereal character, I named the project "La Sirena," the Spanish word for "mermaid." I'd always envisioned mermaids as mythological temptresses who wreaked death and destruction on those who dared pass near their seaside perches. Now, casting my siren away in a harsh desert landscape, I saw my own terror and fragility playing out in her ironic and deadly circumstance.
I asked photographer friend Eric Fortier to shoot the series of me embodying my desert-mermaid-self. To me, the photos resonate with fear and isolation, strength and weakness, life and death. It's all there.
Creating something so nakedly personal was my way of taking back control of that awful morning. Releasing the terror from its permanent residence within me cleared a space for all the opportunities and life that lie ahead. In the end, it was a series of photos — and the discovery of my own untapped depths of strength — that saved my life. That is the power and the truth of art — the random opportunity born from the danger of chaos.