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Fuck You, I Survived - Thoughts on Zak S., Abuse, and D&D

CW: emotional and physical abuse, sexual assault

by John “Senstaku” Bates

Fuck that guy and people like him.

Just wanted to get that out right away so both my stance and the subject of this diatribe are clearly presented at the top. If you disagree, feel free to fuck off. Or keep reading. Whatever, I’m the nascent ramblings of a bisexual creative, not a cop. Also, for the record, the title of this is the last time I will refer to that particular shitbag by his name, because I don’t feel the need to have that particular arrangement of letters associated any further with my website, my being, or my works.

To understand my vehement disgust when it comes to abusers I’ll have to recount a few facts of my life. I understand if reading any of the following is difficult for anyone, and don’t judge you not going any further; I’ve hopefully given you p l e n t y   o f t i m e t o t u r n a w a y n o w. Those of you remaining, welcome to my circus family.

While I can’t exactly point to every instance of physical or emotional abuse I’ve gone through, I can sure as hell give you the highlights. As a child with a very physically evident psychological aversion to the very concept of needles, my family rarely missed an opportunity to bring up the concept. Even when my arm was physically locking itself up from the psychic pain of a needle being jabbed into my arm they would continue. Now that might not sound bad, but I want you to fold your non-dominant arm up to your shoulder and flex as hard as you can now.

And hold it there for half an hour.

Hurts don’t it? And it’s a physical pain you can’t stop because your brain is busy telling you “HEY GUESS WHAT THIS IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO HAVE A BIG FUCKOFF NEEDLE IN YOUR ARM AIN’T IT GREAT!?” Now, to be fair, it wasn’t my entire family doing that all the time. Just my older brother really who got a kick out of it. You know what my father got a kick out of? Calling me a pussy. If I wasn’t interested in doing something that he and my older brother liked (mostly car-related to be a Southern stereotype), I was a pussy. He never called me a faggot though, no, that was my brother’s word.

Now sure, being called a pussy and a faggot hardly constitutes as emotional abuse for most people, granted, but it doesn’t help when it’s piled on top of being forced into situations you don’t want to be in and cannot escape from repeatedly. When caving, or spelunking, I was constantly afraid we’d get lost or fall in a pit and die. With racing, they tried to put me in a vehicle that goes from 0 to 60 in a second when I was 8, and I hit the gas and launched myself (in a dragster, unbuckled), out of the garage at about half speed accidentally. I was screaming until the thing came to a stop and I was pulled out, called stupid for not hitting the brakes, and fortunately deemed too much of a financial risk to try it again.

I also had a nanny my parents would leave me with whenever they left town to go do important adult things I wasn’t allowed to come with (mostly racing) for. A sweet old lady with the face of a leather handbag who made us go out and find our own switches with which she would discipline us. I accidentally got one with thorns one time and she didn’t hesitate to use it. Though, I will admit, it was also in that house that I had my first crush, who introduced me to Sailor Moon. So that was nice.

School eventually came, at which point I was diagnosed with ADHD and given medicine to help calm me down. Ritalin, as it turns out, is not for everyone and especially not for me so we stopped taking it, which meant I got relegated to the Special Needs classrooms because they had to have a specialist for us ADHD kids.

Turns out you need a specialist to sit on children who aren’t behaving. Fair enough, I was a deadly little guy what with my being shorter than all the other boys and less athletic. Now, the psychology behind sitting on kids in schools I’m not necessarily familiar with, but let me tell you it certainly feels traumatic to have an adult sitting on you to the point that it feels like you might get crushed to death. I’m not alone in that either - a good friend of mine has relayed similar disciplinary experiences to me.

Then I went through a series of abusive girlfriends, from throwing my own glasses case in my face because it was funny and giving less than a shit when I get trampled at a concert she invited me to from one, to telling me that if we broke up she’d die and it would be my fault because she would write that I killed her in her diary (not that that necessarily makes any sense?) and throwing kitchen knives at me from another. Something about my “beat up geek puppy” appeal in middle and high school attracted a particular brand of person.

And finally we start getting to the good stuff: you know, actual physical trauma and emotional abuse. When I entered high school and expressed a love of acting and a desire to pursue it as a career, I got the standard “There is no money in acting, you should go to college and work on cars like your dad does, there’s no point in chasing your dreams, nobody ever makes it as an actor etc. etc. etc.” ad infinitum ad nauseum.

And my father threw me into a bookshelf.

Well, to be fair, he threw me into a bookshelf, my door, my bed, and my closet, flipping over and knocking down most of those things in the process. You see, my father had this strange idea that everything in the house belonged to him - even if he had no real claim of ownership over it. And so, since I didn’t want to share my PS2 with my younger brother at the time - I love him, but he is the reason I had to replace my physical copies of FF7 and FF8 twice - a PS2 I had paid for with money earned not from my father but from my grandmother, he decided that he was just going to rip it out and throw it in the trash.

So I defended myself and my stuff and got manhandled for it.

And to top it all off, the pièce de résistance, my older brother’s girlfriend threatened me into letting her make out with me and groping me when I was still in middle school. The less said about that particular unreported sexual assault the better.

Now, I know there are people who are going to go through all of that and say “That’s not abuse, THIS is abuse” as if abuse is some sort of Australian hunting knife, but trust me, physical and mental scars can be accrued from many a seemingly innocent incident and it’s really hard to relay the feeling of these events. Hell, I couldn’t recognize much of that myself as abuse until I sat down and thought about it years later, and realized that a lot of that experience built me to the person that I am now, and not always in a positive way.

T H A T  H A V I N G  B E E N S A I D, and hopefully that’s a good place for anyone who skipped the abuse history to come back in, I want to talk about shitbag mentioned at the top of this post. Fuck that guy.

As a member of the LGBTQA+ community, a content creator in the D&D space, an abuse survivor, and someone whose goal includes providing a safe space to play for people who often feel unwelcome or shut out of more traditional venues:  I cannot be silent on this, nor can I stand that kind of behavior, nor the sort of behavior that makes way for that particular sort of trash. It’s inexcusable, especially when - as has been stated - this has been known information for a while that wasn’t taken seriously.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know anything at all about this guy until recently, when Mandy Morbid and Vivka Grey spoke out about him. And then I heard that he had in some capacity consulted on D&D 5th edition, my favorite D&D edition in the series. So what did I do?

I went and blotted out his name in my Player’s Handbook with a purple crayon marker. Even took a picture for proof.


You’ll notice one other name blotted out there, and if you look in your Player’s Handbook you’ll see it’s Mike Mearls. Because he defended and enabled this abuser even after receiving information about it, and then when called out delivered a fairly weak corporate apology. Do I think he’s an evil man? No, I don’t. I think he’s a contributing factor to a culture of abuse that normalizes the people who are, and while I can’t really do much to him, I can make a symbolic gesture.

Now, will I - as some have suggested - abandon D&D altogether? No, I won’t.

Because I want you to look at that picture again. Note the two names that are blotted out; and then look at all the rest. D&D is a product created by a massive team, for a massive fanbase, and has been used and can be used for good over and over again. From inspiring other people to providing safe spaces for creativity and to work through trauma and emotion, to grow as humans through the field of play. It’s not the only system that is useful for that, sure, but if we abandon it because someone who acts and thinks abhorrent things touched it then guess what?

He wins.

People that want nothing more than for LGBTQA+ people and women to disappear from the hobby and let it go back to what it used to be perceived as, a niche group for “intellectuals” (straight white men), win every time we let someone like that sack of shit push us away from each other, and from the people who pour their heart and soul into making these games inclusive, welcoming, and a creative space for everyone.

And I’m not going to let that happen. I will continue to play D&D, I will continue to do my damndest to make the space I occupy a safe one for people from all walks of life and experiences, and I will continue to stand against abusers and with their victims. I trust that I’m not alone in this.

To all those suffering from abuse, I hear you. I’m with you. To all those who think it’s fine to treat people that way, I’ve just got four words.

Fuck you. I survived.

-John “Senstaku” Bates