Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay and Destruction is a biographical portrait of a complicated woman. Sandra Pankhurst runs a trauma cleaning service in suburban Melbourne. She and her crew clean up bloody crime scenes, death scenes and cases of extreme squalor (think A&E’s Hoarders). While Sandra’s life in this business is interesting material in and of itself, the book is really about who Sandra is and has been throughout her often pain-filled life. The thread that runs through the book is compassion, both for others and for ourselves, even when compassion is difficult to give. Some spoilers to follow in this review.
Krasnostein visits over 20 extreme cleanup scenes with Sandra, age 63, who owns Specialised Trauma Cleaning. When we meet Sandra, she’s battling major health concerns but still running the company and supervising her crew. It’s clear from the outset that Sandra is always the consummate professional, handling the cleaning of a recently deceased (heroin overdose) young woman’s apartment with swift and straightforward orders to her team, collecting items to save for the deceased’s family along the way. When, in a hoarding cleanup, she gets human fecal matter on her hand from touching a light switch, she simply asks for hand sanitizer and moves on. Sandra never shows an ounce of judgment toward her clients, whether living or dead.
The average person would probably have a hard time disguising their disgust when standing in a home with sewage seeping into the carpets, but the reader soon finds out that Sandra is not the average person. Sandra handles other people’s traumas so deftly because she has experienced a lifetime of it.
Sandra was born a boy and endured a brutally abusive childhood, practically being exiled from her own family and their home as an adolescent. As a young man called Peter, Sandra married Linda and had children, all the while living a secret life frequenting gay bars, dressing as a woman and having relationships with men. When the secret finally got out, Sandra left, and because of social norms in 1960s and 70s Australia, she is forced into an underground lifestyle. In her new life, Sandra takes on sex work, abuses drugs and forms a chosen family of other queer sex workers. She has sex reassignment surgery when it’s still a relatively new procedure. She endures horrible things, including witnessing the murder of a person she loves and surviving a violent rape along with another brothel worker. She is estranged from her parents and only speaks to one of her siblings. She eventually finds work in the mortuary field, which leads her to trauma cleaning later on.
Sandra, no matter the violence she’s faced, takes on life with constant forward motion, as if stopping to consider any of her life’s events will let the trauma catch up to her. Even when she’s diagnosed with lung issues, she never stops working. But her trauma has done more than propel her forward; it has imbued her with the highest levels of compassion for everyone she encounters.
My favorite parts of this biography are when Sandra is interacting with her clients. She talks to them from a place of empathy, as if their having a living room covered knee-deep in bags of rotting food is like having a messy counter top. When a hoarding client starts to root through the trash bags Sandra and her team are filling, in case “something good got mixed in” with the garbage, Sandra is calm, saying in a sweet voice, “You know this is rubbish.” She’s able to talk clients out of this kind of behavior by making them feel like it’s really their idea to throw something out. She gives powerless people a small sense of agency, even as they stand among their own bodily waste with their houses sometimes literally falling down around them. While with Marilyn, an alcoholic cancer patient, Sandra stands in her closest with her, admiring the As Seen on TV blouses she’s bought, designed by a star on a soap opera they both love. It’s like Marilyn invited her gal pal over to hang out, and they’re just having a regular Saturday. In the next paragraph though, Sandra discovers bugs in Marilyn’s bed, and points them out so matter-of-factly you’d think she was saying “I love this duvet. Where’d you get it?”
All the while, Krasnostein is keenly observing the cleaning team, the odd items lost in the squalor and the client herself. In several instances, her writing about putrid garbage is somehow lovely. It’s gross, yes, but Krasnostein renders these scenes of intense sadness and filth into often poetic descriptions of how humans manifest their pain. Also important: rather than gawking at mental illness and how it affects these people, the way shows like Hoarders do, Sandra – and Krasnostein – approach mental illness with kindness and its sufferers with respect.
What impresses me most about Krasnostein is her ability to take the compassion with which Sandra treats her clients and apply it to her assessment of Sandra. Sandra is far from perfect. While she’s experienced heaps of trauma, she’s also inflicted pain on others. She cheated on more than one spouse, and she pretty much abandoned her children. She’s indifferent to other members of the queer community and particularly dismissive of other trans people. While Sandra has done problematic things, Kransnostein chooses compassion for her subject as well, framing her as a complex, but ultimately good, person. Krasnostein’s picture of Sandra challenges readers to extend the same empathy to others, whether they’ve made questionable choices in their past or they’re struggling in the present. We’ve all got pain, and sometimes we all need someone to help us clean up our messes.
You can buy Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner online at our featured bookstore, The Strand. Have you read The Trauma Cleaner? What did you think?