The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

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.

4/5 Unforgettable.

Thank you to Text Publishing (via Goodreads) for my copy of The Trauma Cleaner.

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12 responses

    • It’s certainly not a book for everyone and there is extremely traumatic stuff in Sandra’s life (the actual cleaning bits were relatively low-key compared to what Sandra had endured in her past).

      I was drawn to the book because of something that happened in my childhood – my mum was talking to a close family friend who was telling her about their neighbour who had taken his own life (he shot himself). Our friend helped clean up because there was no one else to do it and, although as an 8yo I was clearly not supposed to be listening to this conversation, I recall the friend telling my mum that they had to wipe blood from the plastic pages in the photo albums and use steel wool to clean the ceiling. This really struck me at the time because I couldn’t imagine losing someone like that and then having to clean up. Obviously there were no ‘trauma cleaners’ in the seventies…

      • I see where you’re coming from. Surprisingly given my age, almost no one in my life has died except from old age and it’s something I’ve never had to deal with.

    • You’re right, if it was fiction I wouldn’t have believed what I was reading. It was particularly hard-hitting for me because so many of the conflicts and conditions she had to deal with (legally) were in recent memory.

  1. Hi Kate, thanks so much for writing this review about this remarkable biography. Based on your review, I’ve bought a copy and can’t wait to start reading it. I think the issues that drag queens and transgender people encounter are incredibly complex, difficult and painful. I am interested to read how Sandra has taken her experiences of deep pain and suffering and transformed them to a place where she can offer compassion to others in a time of crisis through her work.

    • Thank you 🙂 I’m sure you’ll find the book very interesting. I was surprised at how instrumental Sandra had been in progressing the rights of transgender people and sex workers – and of course shocked that many of her battles were had relatively recently. I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book.

    • I certainly agree when it comes to the hoarding people – they are invariably very lonely people whose families have abandoned them in some way (the cases in the book all had families that they were in contact with but they never let them visit their house – the fact is that their families were failing to see that the hoarder was struggling).

      But when it comes to places where people died (for whatever reason – old age, drug overdoses, suicide) I don’t think the families of those people, regardless of how kind they might be, necessarily want or should clean up what is left behind. There’s not always a lot of dignity in death in its final stages and we have to be careful about our ‘final’ memories of people. Sandra, as she was described in the book, provides a service that is respectful and extremely sensitive which is important in some circumstances.

      • I totally agree, I guess I was thinking in those situations you mentioned like homicide and the meth labs. Seems strange that market forces would render a job like that necessary….

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