The Trauma Cleaner
This is a book as multifaceted as its subject. It’s a meticulously put-together biography of a fastidiously groomed woman whose business it is to clean up after murder, suicide and hoarding messes. It’s a wondrous portrait of an inspiring character who has been, at various times in her life, the wife of a respectable man, the devoted lover of another, a rape survivor, a sex worker and drag queen with a pregnant girlfriend, a husband and father and a sadistically abused young boy. It’s an eloquent discourse on trauma, pain and ways of coping, or not. It’s a history of the law and policing in Victoria with regard to its LGBTQI community. It’s a jigsaw puzzle with some pieces missing, some permanently disordered and others willed into creation. It’s the frequently surprising and sometimes funny story of a potty-mouthed transgender businesswoman and long-time Liberal Party supporter.
The Trauma Cleaner is also an act of love by a writer whose empathy for and devotion to Sandra Pankhurst, her subject, runs deep for reasons she slowly reveals. The book, in author Sarah Krasnostein’s words, is itself a “trauma cleaning” with words as disinfectants: “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.”
Each section of the book is loosely and intuitively structured around a different trauma-cleaning job around Melbourne. This is cleaning as in hazmat suits, crowbars and industrial-grade stain removers, not just mops and buckets. In the case of hoarders, Pankhurst soothes the anxieties of the demented and the distressed while her team chips away at congealed mountains of garbage and shit and gossip magazines, hauls off furniture half-dissolved by the enzymes in bodily fluids, and scrubs oozing stains off the walls and ceilings.
Krasnostein follows her around, awestruck, gamely sitting beside her on rotting beds covered in food containers and crawling with vermin, as Pankhurst persuades some of the saddest and loneliest people in the world to part with their decayed possessions and ancient phone bills. Just as Pankhurst and her team methodically clear away the debris of their clients’ lives and homes, so does Krasnostein whittle away at the fortress-like walls Pankhurst has erected from denial and forgetfulness to reveal the human being underneath: “You belong,” she writes. “You belong, you belong.” CG
Text, 272pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 7, 2017 as "Sarah Krasnostein, The Trauma Cleaner ". Subscribe here.