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BOOK REVIEW: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife…

But as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home, she just wanted to belong. Now she believes her clients deserve no less.

A woman who sleeps among garbage she has not put out for forty years. A man who bled quietly to death in his loungeroom. A woman who lives with rats, random debris and terrified delusion. The still life of a home vacated by accidental overdose.

Sarah Krasnostein has watched the extraordinary Sandra Pankhurst bring order and care to these, the living and the dead—and the book she has written is equally extraordinary. Not just the compelling story of a fascinating life among lives of desperation, but an affirmation that, as isolated as we may feel, we are all in this together.

My Thoughts:

I had some time free at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and so slipped in to hear Sarah Krasnostein talk about her debut work of biography, The Trauma Cleaner. I had seen people talking about it and recommending it on social media, and I knew it had won the $100,000 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, but otherwise I knew very little about it.

Sarah Krasnostein spoke so intelligently about her transformative journey in writing this book that I bought it at once, and asked her to sign it.

Basically, Sarah was at an academic conference one day when she saw a tall blonde woman sitting at a table with an oxygen mask and a fanned-out pile of brochures about her company. ‘Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services’. Sarah was intrigued, picked up a copy and read it through several times.

“People do not understand about body fluids,” the brochure read. “Bodily fluids are like acids. They have all the same enzymes that break down our food. When these powerful enzymes come into contact with furnishing and the like, deterioration is rapid. I have known enzymes to soak through a sofa and to eat at the springs, mould growing throughout a piece of furniture and I have witnessed the rapid deterioration of a contaminated mattress.”

Wanting to know more, Sarah rang the tall blonde woman – whose name was Sandra Pankhurst – and asked if she could interview her.

I find this action of hers intriguing as well. Sarah Krasnostein was not a journalist or a writer by trade. She was a law lecturer and researcher with a doctorate in criminal law. What deep psychological need in Sarah drove her to want to meet a trauma cleaner, and then spend the next four years following her around?

Whatever her own motivations, Sarah Krasnostein has an infallible instinct for a good story. Sandra Pankhurst’s life was shocking, heartbreaking, and powerful. Born a boy, adopted at birth, abused and neglected, he became a husband and father, then a drag-queen and sex-worker, and then undertook gender reassignment surgery and became a woman. Totally reinventing herself, Sandra began to work at a funeral parlour and then married a man she met at his wife’s cremation. Energetic and ambitious, she runs a business with him and stands for local council. When the business fails, she begins a cleaning company to support them both, and soon realises that the real money is in trauma cleaning.

So what does a trauma cleaner do? Her business card says:

* Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Clean up * Squalor/ Trashed Properties * Preparing the Home, for Home Help Agencies to Attend * Odor Control * Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes * Deceased Estates * Mold, Flood and Fire Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Clean Up * Industrial Accidents * Cell Cleaning

For three and a half years, Sarah Krasnostein followed Sandra Pankhurst in and out of filthy, stinking houses and watched as she returned them to sparkling, sweet-smelling order. The first job Sarah attended was the apartment of a 35-year-old heroin junkie who had overdosed and her body had not been found for two weeks. Sarah was 35 at the time herself, a confronting parallel.

A chapter about one of Sandra’s clients is followed by a chapter about Sandra herself, the two timelines weaving in and out of each other until we reach the end of the tale.

Sandra is an unreliable narrator, and so not an easy subject for a biography:

‘Many of the facts of Sandra’s past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality. She is open about the fact that drugs may have impacted her memory … It is also my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced,’ Sarah Krasnostein writes. So The Trauma Cleaner is also a meditation on memory and forgetting, trust and lies, and this philosophical element of the book adds an extra depth and interest.

Bu the real star of the book is Sandra Pankhurst herself – her warmth, humour, compassion and grit. This is truly an astonishing life story, discovered by accident and told with real grace and thoughtfulness.

I was lucky enough to interview Sarah Krasnostein for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment, I love to know what you think.

INTERVIEW: Sarah Krasnostein

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


This week I'm very excited to welcome Sarah Krasnostein, author of The Trauma Cleaner, to the blog.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Pretty much! I've schlepped a notebook around with me since I was seven years old - recording dialogue, descriptions, ideas, observations, books I've read, books I want to read. The only real difference between now and then is that now I use the notes app on my phone. And my spelling has moderately improved.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

Well, I only have one book at the moment, but the process of writing that had much in common with writing my doctoral dissertation, and the long form pieces I'm writing currently. My impulse, coming from an academic background, is to ' do all my homework' - i.e., the research - and then write everything up neatly. But that type of perfectionism will stunt you because, with long works, the writing is the thinking. So I do plan where I want a piece to go, but I try to remain sufficiently open to what the material is telling me that I am able to restructure as I go.

Where do you write, and when?

For the past decade, I've written on a crappy Ikea particle board that rests on a crappy filing cabinet at either end. But I sit under a glorious and very long Anne Lamott quote which I printed out long ago and stuck above my computer. I'll set the first part out here in case it's of use to anyone else:

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is you will die anyway and that a whole lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it..."
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (1994)

As to when I write, I have a very young child. So whenever I get time to write, that's when I'll be writing!

What is your favourite part of writing?

Reading. I think we get trapped into thinking about writing as 'content' or 'output'. I certainly do. And when that happens I remind myself of Stephen King's advice - which I'll probably butcher here - but the essence was that if you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write.

What do you do when you get blocked?
See above. I read. Being inspired by the work I love reminds me why I write in the first place. I'm a lawyer and an academic by training, so I have the type of personality that wants to drill down harder into the task when I find Im not getting anywhere. But that's not how a creative process works, unfortunately, so I've had to learn to be looser. I'll get up from the desk and go read or walk, spend time with my family, do chores from the never-ending 'to do' list. When I take the pressure off and engage with the world, I find that connections in the material Im working with are easier to make, and that'll allow me to get back into it.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
I love and fear this question. Ideally it would be, "Who are ten thousand of your favourite writers". In no particular order: Gay Talese, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Shirley Jackson, James Baldwin, WG Sebald, Susan Sheehan, Elizabeth Strout, Nicole Krauss, Mary Oliver, John Jeremiah Sullivan...

What do you consider to be good writing?

Control and the confidence and originality that comes from depth in feeling or scholarship. I'm always drawn to the ways those qualities are conveyed at the sentence level.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

At some point, you will want to stop. In fact, you'll find very good reasons to stop. That voice is a liar. Keep going.

You can read my review of The Trauma Cleaner here.

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