Books and reading

When a book surprises: ‘The Trauma Cleaner’ by Sarah Krasnostein

For reasons I don’t quite understand, I avoided this book for some time. When it was published in 2017 (Text Publishing) I read and heard a lot of praise about it, but I didn’t rush to get a copy. I’ve puzzled over the reason why: possibly, thinking it was simply a book about the work of a trauma cleaner, I was reluctant to indulge in what I’d thought of as a kind of ‘morbid curiosity’. How wrong I was!

This book is so many things. A biography, yes: it tells the story of Sandra Pankhurst, a woman who runs a cleaning company that specialises in trauma cleaning. For those new to this term, this includes the obvious sorts of scenarios: buildings in which a murder or suicide has taken place, or where someone has died and been undiscovered for a long time…you can imagine the sort of mess resulting from these situations. But trauma cleaning, I learnt, also includes residences that would be described as sites of ‘hoarding and squalor’, where a council or community service has stepped in to order the removal of rubbish or to offer help to a resident unable to cope with household hygiene and maintenance.

The author shadowed Sandra on many of her jobs, and describes the scenes into which Sandra and her staff set foot, and the residents/clients, when they were present. We come to understand that there are many, many reasons why people become overwhelmed by the tasks of daily life, frequently involving their own personal traumas, or ill health (physical or mental), or a combination of these things. And we come to understand that these situations are much more common than we may like to think.

So, that was my first surprise with this book – it taught me about the job of a trauma cleaner in a way that did not titillate or shock, but portrayed the lives of Sandra’s many clients in a manner that was both compassionate and matter of fact – exactly the way that Sandra herself approaches each cleaning job she embarks upon.

But the biggest surprise was that the book told so much of Sandra’s own story. She is a remarkable woman who has herself experienced deep and profound trauma and loss, and who now draws on the well of her own humanity to offer care and respect to the people for whom she works: families of deceased, people living with severe mental ill health, or in squalid situations.

Sandra’s story begins with her adoption – as a baby boy into a Catholic, working class family riven by domestic violence and alcoholism (well done, Catholic adoption system of the 1960’s!) and goes on to include her rejection by her adoptive parents when they have two biological children after adopting Peter, as baby Sandra is known in the book. The little boy was dealt levels of cruelty and neglect that were breathtaking, and which spark the uncomfortable thought that such childhood experiences are more common than many of us could know. Peter grew up, was kicked out of the family home, married, had two children, then discovered the gay scene of the 1970’s, and embarked on a path of self discovery (and self abuse via illicit drugs and alcohol), thinking all the while that the ‘difference’ for which his adoptive parents rejected him so vehemently in his childhood, was that he was homosexual.

Peter eventually realised that the truth was more complicated. He was not gay, but was a female born into a male body. With enormous courage, he decided to do what he could to right that wrong, by beginning a course of medications and hormones to change his outward appearance to a more feminine one, and then to endure sex reassignment surgery – one of the earliest people to undergo this procedure in Australia. Eventually, after numerous iterations, setbacks and new traumas, Peter became Sandra.

There is so much to the story of Sandra’s life that it is impossible to do it justice in a few paragraphs. What I loved about this book, though, was the author’s way of telling the story, giving the reader gems of information, circling around to the present and weaving back to the past. Krasnostein tells Sandra’s story with lyrical language and a thoughtfulness that befits such a complex, multi-layered life.

The Trauma Cleaner was the recipient of many literary awards: Victorian Prize for Literature in 2018, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-fiction 2018, the ABIA General Non-fiction Book of the Year 2018, and the Dobbie Literary Award for First Time Published Author, and it was shortlisted for many others. Having overcome my initial (and still puzzling) hesitancy to read it, I can understand why. It’s a wonderfully written book about a remarkable person.

As a footnote, I listened to the Audible audiobook version of The Trauma Cleaner, (Audible 2018) and the narration by Rachel Tidd was perfect, adding much to my experience of Sarah Krasnostein’s beautiful words.

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