A book read just because I wanted to read it? Nearly unheard of around these parts! A friend of mine read The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) earlier this year, and although it was different from what she expected it to be, I was still intrigued by her review. Since then, I’ve seen it on numerous blogs, and so this Saturday morning, I downloaded a copy from my library- before the library was even open (!!!). For those of us who are old enough to remember the days when the library closed its doors at 4 pm on Saturday and didn’t reopen again until Monday morning at 9 am, being able to get new reading material in this way will never stop being utterly miraculous. 🙂 (For the record, I feel the same way about the internet when I wake up at 2 am Sunday morning, wondering what the capital of Liechtenstein is.)
The Trauma Cleaner is a biography of Sandra Pankhurst, an Australian woman who is and has been many things during her time here on earth. These days, she’s head of her own business that cleans after grisly death scenes, hoarding situations, and fires and weather-related disasters, but Sandra hasn’t always been Sandra. Her assigned gender at birth was male, and in order to differentiate between her past and present, Ms. Krasnostein gives Sandra’s past self the name of Peter (which is not her actual deadname, but that name is something Sandra prefers to keep private). Peter was adopted by a family that had recently lost a child; he was that child’s replacement (I have NO idea how people think this is a good idea), but instead of providing him with a loving home, that family abused him horrifically. They beat him, starved him, forced him to sleep in a shed out back, refused him entry into the house past 4:30 pm, and he wasn’t allowed to use the bathing facilities or the toilet. All his teeth had to be removed by age 17 due to malnutrition, which was the same year the family threw him out for good. Desperate for love, Peter married at 19, but almost immediately, it was clear this was a terrible decision. Nevertheless, Peter fathered two children with his wife before leaving to live a more authentic life under a variety of aliases, eventually settling on Sandra (the Pankhurst came after another marriage which was later voided by the state).
Sandra’s life is chaos, broken up by brief periods of stability. Like many transgender people, she engages in various forms of sex work in order to earn money (there’s a content warning here for a fairly graphic description of rape and assault). Her attempts at more mainstream employment sometimes work out and occasionally end in disaster, but Sandra eventually finds her niche and opens her own business dealing with the clean-ups that others refuse to do. It’s here that she thrives, but even with that success, her future is uncertain: Sandra lives with terminal lung and liver disease.
The details of each clean-up scene are fascinating, horrifying, and grotesque, and Sandra has the amazing gift of being able to work with hoarders with the goal of restoring order to their homes and lives with the least amount of mental anguish possible. Gently and respectfully, she engages each occupant and meets them at whatever place they’re coming from and helps them move forward. She can tolerate abominable conditions and has no qualms about walking into houses piled high with urine and feces-soaked furniture, bugs, rats, mold, all the hideous detritus that signifies a deeply distressed inhabitant, or the blood, decay, and rot that stems from a tragic and/or unnoticed death. These are remarkable qualities, but my biggest takeaway from this book is how very, very complex humanity is. Sandra has suffered massive trauma herself, from her adoptive parents, through her sex work, from the society that declared her very existence a perversion and attempted to force her out of every viable means of both labor and human connection, and the upshot of this is that at many times in her life, Sandra has been kind of a terrible person. As Peter, she cheated on her first wife and left her two sons without a further word; as Sandra, she cheated for years on the husband who gave her the last name of Pankhurst. She’s made terrible decisions, done terrible things, and still she exhibits remarkable qualities in her work as a trauma cleaner. Her friends and neighbors seem to adore her.
We’re quick to write people off for doing or being certain things- I know I’m guilty of this, I think we all are- and at times, it’s necessary to create distance in order to protect ourselves. But The Trauma Cleaner is a wonderful example of how we grow and change, of how many people we can be throughout our lives. Who we are and how we’re seen by one group of people may be entirely different than the person we are and the way we’re seen by another group later on. And that’s not a bad thing, I think.
What a fascinating book about a complex woman. I’m definitely glad I read this.