When I spotted Sarah Krasnostein’s 2018 book The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster one Saturday morning at the public library it looked vaguely familiar, like I’d seen it reviewed online somewhere but couldn’t remember where or any details. Being sick and twisted I couldn’t resist a book about the business of cleaning homes ravaged by hoarders and traumatic deaths. So of course I borrowed it and proceeded to whip through it in no time. Yes, I found The Trauma Cleaner full of those horror stories but it was the life story of Sandra Pankhurst, the 63-year-old owner and operator of Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services that stuck with me for a long time after I finished this book.
Sandra, an Australian, was born male. Adopted as a young child by a devout Catholic couple in Melbourne, she suffered years of physical and emotional abuse from her alcoholic father and ultra religious mother who resented their adopted child for being effeminate and thus in their eyes gay. Exiled to a small shack in the backyard and denied food and bathroom privileges she was forced to pilfer from the family larder just to survive. Desperate to trade this hell for a life of normalcy she married young, fathered two children, worked the blue-collar life (which resulted in a brush with death during the West Gate Bridge collapse), and explored Melbourne’s underground gay scene. It was here for the first time she encountered trans individuals and thus began her own trajectory as a trans person.
But alas, it was no easy trajectory. During 7os in Australia most physicians were averse to doing gender reassignment surgery (some patients went overseas to countries like Egypt for their surgeries and encountered unsanitary and unsafe operating conditions) but fortunately for Sandra there was a small, secretive network of physicians willing to help. After discretely operated on by one of them, she could finally begin living as the woman she was meant to be. But even that was no picnic. For awhile she worked as a prostitute in a legal brothel and one night was raped, kidnapped, assaulted and almost murdered by a crazy client. She married twice, started one business and after it failed started a new one specializing in extreme cleaning jobs.
Perhaps because she’s lived such a hard life Sandra is able to relate well to her clients as well as her staff, since both in varying degrees are broken people. Let’s face it, no one tells their high school career counselors they wannabe trauma cleaners when they grow up. Frequently, the people Sandra employs are either drifters, semi-feral types ill-suited to office jobs or respected vocations or odd-balls. As for her clients, her bedside (or I should say “filthside” manner) makes her the Mother Theresa of Trauma cleaning. Showing up with her team at a hoarders’ home she’s well aware it’s not the resident who’s requested her services but a concerned relative, social worker or landlord. Compassionately reasoning with the hoarders, who might be sobbing and begging her to please go away, she’ll assure the resident this is for the best and she’s there to help.
Krasnostein tagged along for eight cleaning excursions, six of them at the homes of hoarders. One began with Sandra’s team removing the front doors of the house because it was so filled with refuse. With every available space piled floor to ceiling with the fossilized remains of old newspapers and magazines, rotten leftovers, garbage and pet feces “we need crowbars, spades, rakes, a sledgehammer” to get the job done according to Sandra. One of the worst cleanups involved a house with a broken toilet that had been overflowing for years, spreading its fecal filth throughout the house. When cleaning up after a resident has died, one of the first things her teams does is locate any “weird porn” and remove it.
No matter how grim the subject matter, The Trauma Cleaner is one of this year’s pleasant surprises.