All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

on July 16, 2018

The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster 
Sarah Krasnostein
Text Publishing
2017, 272p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife…

But as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home, she just wanted to belong. Now she believes her clients deserve no less.

A woman who sleeps among garbage she has not put out for forty years. A man who bled quietly to death in his loungeroom. A woman who lives with rats, random debris and terrified delusion. The still life of a home vacated by accidental overdose.

Sarah Krasnostein has watched the extraordinary Sandra Pankhurst bring order and care to these, the living and the dead—and the book she has written is equally extraordinary. Not just the compelling story of a fascinating life among lives of desperation, but an affirmation that, as isolated as we may feel, we are all in this together.

I’d been really interested in this book since it was published late last year. It won several awards, including the Victorian Prize for Literature in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. I saw it on sale on iBooks and snapped it up – to be honest I am having to buy more ebooks these days because I simply don’t have the room to keep expanding my physical book collection. So when I see a good iBooks sale, I use it as an excuse to pick up books I’ve had on my radar.

Sandra Pankhurst owns a cleaning business that specialises not only in crime scenes or situations where someone has died at home, but also helping clean up hoarder houses. Her secret is not just in knowing what chemicals to use to get rid of whatever the issue is – blood, human waste, rotting food etc, but also in her sympathetic and non-judgemental manner. Sandra manages to connect with people who struggle to let others in to their home, who struggle to let go of the urge to keep things. I was really interested in her job. It’s difficult work in many ways and Sandra seems to maintain a poised demeanour and a sympathetic manner even as she’s wading through their waist deep garbage.

Her life is equally tragic and fascinating. An abused and lonely childhood, treated little better than a dog, made to sleep outside and disconnected from the rest of the family. Sandra was born Peter and adopted through the Catholic Church and raised in Footscray. Peter’s gentle personality seemed to irritate both parents – Peter’s father used his fists and Peter’s mother used distance. It wasn’t until Peter was older, married with two sons that there was a sudden realisation what was different. Peter left the family and began the process of transitioning to a woman. During this time there was little work for transgender people other than sex work, and although Sandra (it seems that Sandra went through several names before settling on one identity, changing it each time her former wife Linda seemed to catch up with her) did plenty of sex work, both in Melbourne and also in Western Australia, she also managed to hold down several standard jobs and was even married to a man who was aware that she wasn’t born a woman, for fifteen years.

As much as her life is incredibly interesting, Sandra is a very unreliable narrator which means there are large gaps due to things she doesn’t remember or doesn’t care to. She’s used a lot of drugs in her time and has experienced traumas as well and all of these things create gaps, whether they be accidental or purposefully, in her memory. It gives you an incomplete picture and the fact that Sandra seems to constantly disconnect from things – most notably her wife and children – can make it difficult to truly connect with her. She’s so kind and sympathetic to her clients but at times seems completely unable to sympathise with her own children and acknowledge that although she left her former wife everything when she was Peter, left their marriage, she also left her with no money and no way to support herself and nor did she contribute to the upbringing of her children, either financially or emotionally.

Although I enjoyed this and loved reading about not only Sandra’s job but her journey as an early transgender person, I have to admit that the choppy timeline didn’t really work for me. I’d have preferred a more linear story rather than going back and forth in time and returning to previously mentioned stories to finish them off. It just made things a little confusing and although I found Sandra an interesting person, she wasn’t perfect by any means. However at times she’s often presented in this really idealised light and a lot of the narrative is devoted to this portrayal. I’d have liked more about her job – I found a lot of that really intriguing. She’s doing things that not many people could bring themselves to do and she’s doing it with keeping dignity for those that have died and those that are still alive. A bit more balance to the story, of Sandra and her job, would’ve definitely been to my liking.


Book #115 of 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: