The word ‘unique’ may be bandied around rather much within the publishing industry… but every so often a book comes along that truly is one of a kind. The Trauma Cleaner, and its subject – Sandra Pankhurst – really are unique and exceptional.
Hit TV shows like The Hoarder Next Door, Britain’s Biggest Hoarders and How Clean Is Your Home? have been doing the rounds for years, joined by Grim Sweepers, True Grime and How Clean is Your Crime Scene? Audiences are captivated by the human interest stories which these programmes allow us to glimpse. The Trauma Cleaner is many such stories in one, but by far the most compelling is that of Sandra herself.
Author Sarah Krasnostein’s incredibly artful narrative flips back and forth between the present day – jobs attended to by Sandra, the owner and founder of Specialised Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services, along with her team of cleaners – and Sandra’s past.
Each of the hoarder cleaning cases – Kim, Dorothy, Gordon, Janice, Shane, Marilyn, Glenda – is a truly sensitive depiction, as well as of the sheer practicality of how Sandra’s business operates. Over the four years Krasnostein followed Sandra in her day-to-day life as a cleaner specialising in trauma cleaning, hoarder clear-ups and total squalor, she witnesses some truly harrowing scenes but her focus remains on Sandra – how efficient she is, how patient and good at dealing with difficult and often severely mentally ill clients, how understanding she is of their pain.
“Her work, in short, is a catalogue of the ways we die physically and emotionally, and the strength and delicacy needed to life the things we leave behind.”
Now an expert in cleaning, Sandra is also an expert on pain. Adopted through the Catholic Church at six-weeks old by parents who had been told they could have no more children, Peter (as Sandra was then) was effectively told he was surplus to requirement following the birth of two more sons. He was relegated to living in the shed and eventually completely banished from the house, underfed, unloved and systematically abused physically and mentally by both parents.
Peter married and became a father young. He started going to gay bars, then taking female hormones and wearing make-up. He left his wife and sons and started performing in drag shows and doing sex work. Peter becomes Stacey Phillips; stage name: Celestial Star, then Stacey Anne Vaughan or sometimes Amanda Celeste Claire… and eventually Sandra Anne Vaughan. In 1980 she became one of the first to undergo reassignment surgery in Australia – there had only been 8 or 9 cases previously.
After years in the sex industry, and following some truly horrifying episodes, she became one of the first female funeral conductors in the state. It was many years later that her work there led to her first trauma clean.
Krasnostein observes early on in the book that Sandra’s story is hazy: she is often an unreliable narrator of her own life. This is not because her memory is worse than anyone else’s, not because of her age, her illness, her past lifestyle: it’s because other people have “told their stories more often” – Sandra has never told hers.
Why did Krasnostien want to tell Sandra’s story? Her sheer admiration, and even love, for Sandra is clear but it is not just that. Not only is Sandra a truly remarkable woman, with an extraordinary story that deserves to be told, but, more than that, Krasnostien believed that writing is a form of trauma cleaning:
“Using words as disinfectants, we are trauma cleaning. Word by word, sentence by sentence, we are reuniting fragments scattered by chaos to create heat and light. We cannot always eliminate what is bad or broken or lost but we can do our best to put everything in its place, such Order being the true opposite of Trauma.
And so your story is imperfect, Sandra, but it is here, made complete, and it is my love letter to you.”
Such an incomparable book has, understandably, already received much attention both here and in Krasnostein and Pankhurst’s native Australia, and is no doubt due much, much more.
Both the Guardian and the Daily Mail have already run features on Sandra, and Krasnostein has recently won one of the most prestigious (and the richest) Australian literary prizes: the Victorian Premiere’s Prize for Literature.
Here are some of the pre-publication reviews:
“Krasnostein’s playful yet heartfelt debut is one of the most arresting works of biography you will read in a long time.”
– The Guardian
“A superbly written book about the re-doutbable Sandra Pankhurst and her work as a trauma cleaner… This is the startling life story of Pankhurst, a trans woman with a heart the size of Uluru, written in Krasnostein’s irresistibly warm, frank, intelligent voice as she describes site of sadness and horror that take the reader straight to the dark heart of the human condition.”
– Australian Book Review
“Written with sensitivity, insight and warmth… Krasnostein has pieced together a compelling history through careful research and interviews. The Trauma Cleaner is no ordinary trauma narrative: we see how the infliction of multiple traumas has left this fascinating woman uniquely placed to restore order among the despair of others, and it is with similar care that Krasnostein has produced this book.”
– Books & Publishing
This book is sure to be one of the most-talked about non-fiction titles of this year and beyond.
The Trauma Cleaner is published on 29 March by Text Publishing Company (9781925498523, p/b, £12.99)