The Reactor by Nick Blackburn review – the fallout of grief

From nuclear meltdowns to Bob Dylan, associations come thick and fast in a therapist’s memoir about death of his father

As a therapist, Nick Blackburn is attuned to the use of story as decoy; when what we want to talk about is too painful, or obscured from our view, misdirection and displacement edge in to fill the gaps and silences. He is aware of the danger of being seduced by those compensatory stand-in stories, of being, in the words of psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller, captured by your patient’s delusion. “Your work as a clinician,” Blackburn quotes Miller as saying, “is not to understand what he says. It’s not to participate in his delusion. Your work as a clinician is to understand the particular way, the peculiar way he makes sense of things.”

But The Reactor is not a book about Blackburn’s attempts to understand what underlies his patients’ stories, rather a fragmentary unrolling of his own particular, peculiar way of making sense of the death of his father. Here is a man whom we meet only in glimpses, the details of whose biography and identity are less significant than his absence and the manner in which he is unavailable to both his son and the reader. This is not a memoir that attempts to piece together a mass of wayward strands and details of a life in order to provide a vaguely comforting sense of the person who once inhabited it. Instead, it is a reckoning with the reality that loss can be just as cataclysmic even when its terrain and contours are indistinct and may never come into perfect focus.

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