This book. Wow.
Harrowing. Courageous. Repulsive. Compelling. Heartbreaking. Uplifting. Fascinating.
The Trauma Cleaner, like its star, Sandra Pankhurst, is genre-defying. Author Sarah Krasnostein shadowed Sandra over a number of years, observing her day-to-day activities and recording the story of her life before she was a cleaner. And that story is remarkable – Sandra was a husband and father, drag queen, sex reassignment patient, sex worker, businesswoman, and trophy wife. As a ‘trauma cleaner’, Sandra cleans places others dare not go – homicide, suicide and death scenes; meth labs; homes of hoarders; and places ravaged by water, mould and filth.
Sandra knows her clients as well as they know themselves; she airs out their smells, throws out their weird porn, their photos, their letters, the last traces of their DNA entombed in soaps and toothbrushes. She does not, however, erase these people. She couldn’t. She has experienced their same sorrows.
It’s very much Sandra’s story but you never lose Krasnostein’s voice in its telling – specifically, her reaction to the messes and squalor Sandra faces every day; her compassion as she relays the trauma in Sandra’s personal life; and her deep admiration for a woman whose resilience is truly remarkable.
Sandra’s personal story is far more traumatic than the crime scenes she cleans. She was born male and adopted to a family in Footscray, Melbourne. Her adopted father was a violent alcoholic and both parents were physically and emotionally abusive. Sandra (then known as Peter) was forced to live in a shed in the back yard while the rest of the family (his adopted parents and their biological children) lived in the house.
In the taxonomy of pain there is only the pain inflicted by touching and the pain inflicted by not touching. Peter grew up an expert in both.
After leaving home, she met Linda, who she married and had children with. However, being the ‘family man’ was not compatible with her discovery of the gay and trans communities and what followed was life as a drag queen, sex worker and gender reassignment patient.
What Krasnostein does remarkably well is show how the life of Sandra as she once was intersects with the work she does today. Sandra is commanding but compassionate; she gets the job done yet is gentle with her clients, addressing the pain of people who are broken, alone, and frightened in a practical but caring way – little do her clients know how familiar their neglect and despair is to her.
Her work, in short, is a catalogue of the ways we die physically and emotionally, and the strength and delicacy needed to lift the things we leave behind.
In describing the piles of rubbish, the stench of human remains, the feel of walls made soft by mould, and the filthy yellowed mattress of a sex offender, Krasnostein writes simply, elegantly and with an appropriate level of incredulous humour. During a conversation with a hoarder, Krasnostein muses –
I want to explain about my dark room and shaking hands and how the road back starts in thick forest. But I realise that such a conversation will never be possible because we are dwarfed by this gargantuan smell of shit and because, to one of us, it is a question of inadequate storage.
Being aware of the author’s position – one of deep admiration and a little bit of awe; curious but always respectful – throughout Sandra’s story is what sets The Trauma Cleaner apart from your average biography. The result is remarkable.
Thank you to Text Publishing (via Goodreads) for my copy of The Trauma Cleaner.