This is how it ends, sometimes, with strangers in gloves looking at your blood and your too-many bottles of shampoo and your now-ironic Make Positive Changes postcard of Krishna and the last TV channel you flipped to on the night you died and the way the sun hits the tree outside your bedroom window that you used to wake up looking at. This is how it ends if you are unlucky, but lucky enough to have someone like Sandra remember to go through your books for pieces of you to save before strangers move their furniture into the spots where yours used to stand.
Sandra Pankhurst is the proprietress of a trauma cleaning company in Australia. That means that she and her specialized cleaning crew are brought in to crime scenes where a death has taken place, or even scenes involving the living, like extreme hoarding situations. They deal with the messes that are beyond what a normal person or cleaning crew is equipped to handle. It’s work that not many people consider, or if you do, not the kind you’d want to linger in thinking about. But there’s so much more to the story of why Sandra has chosen this work.
Sandra is transgender, born male, and it’s a long and winding life road that’s brought her to where she is as she’s being profiled. What emerges is the portrait of a strong, at times remarkably compassionate, tried-and-tested woman in an unusual line of work, with a complicated, painful, and traumatic backstory of her own.
Journalist Sarah Krasnostein trails Sandra through several jobs in Melbourne, providing a revealing glimpse into this occupation and showing how Sandra does her work with care and sympathy for the lives she’s interacting with, including a respect for those already departed and an understanding for the mentally ill and broken people living with great pain. I was apprehensive that it might be too gory or uncomfortably descriptive, but it’s not too bad. Empathy is the key here, and it seems to be Sandra’s particular life experience of adversity and deep troubles overcome that gives her the ability to do what she does.
“You look on the wall, Director of this Hospital or Head of this Company, and you think, What incident happened in your life? Or did someone leave you and leave you emotionally scarred, and you couldn’t deal with it? Like, there’s so many fragile things can just twist you and turn you,” Sandra once said to me.“By the grace of God, it could be me. So I’m not going to judge anyone. These people were mentally strong, they were high achievers. So, you don’t know. None of us know what tomorrow’s got in store.”
I found this book to be such a contradictory mix. I was initially surprised that much of the story focuses on Sandra’s life before beginning her trauma cleaning business. And I’d hesitated about reading it because I wasn’t sure I wanted to learn the details of her cleaning clients, which include extreme hoarders and the aftermath of violent deaths, like suicides. But upon finishing, I realized those sections detailing her current work were where I most liked seeing Sandra in action. It seems that after a lifetime of struggling to find her place, she’s finally found it in helping strangers who’ve also suffered greatly in their lives, for one reason or another.
Her work, in short, is a catalogue of the ways we die physically and emotionally, and the strength and delicacy needed to lift the things we leave behind.
But at the same time, Krasnostein admits what an unreliable narrator Sandra is. Huge swathes of her life and many details about or memory of specific events are lost completely, either due to the nature of the trauma she endured and her brain’s coping mechanisms, or to years of drug and alcohol abuse. So much is murky or uncertain.
I also had mixed feelings about the writing, which sometimes is beyond fantastic – emotional and philosophical, beautifully capturing the complex human nature at work in both Sandra and her clients. Krasnostein sensitively shows how they’re treated by and in turn respond to the world around them. Elsewhere purple prose creeps in and is a turnoff, or there’s melodramatic wordplay at work that made me lose interest.
I also found it interesting, but a little sad, that Sandra seems more capable of kind treatment towards those who she doesn’t know intimately. For example, she’s dismissive of her ex, with whom she had two children before abandoning the family when the boys were toddlers to pursue the truth about her gender identity and sexuality. Her ex was left with crippling bills and a bleak financial situation, leading to depression and suicidal thoughts. Knowing this, reading Sandra’s particular thinking about this situation seems painfully selfish. Or a later partner who becomes ill and Sandra isn’t interested in “nursing”. It’s tough to reconcile these choices with the empathetic, kindhearted way she handles her clients.
Not that I think Sandra shouldn’t have done what she did for herself in terms of her gender identity – I absolutely do – but her excuses for leaving her family high and dry, regardless of court rulings on custody and the like, seem insufficient. I’m not judging her life decisions, just trying to explain why I found it difficult to always sympathize with her, which feels strange because conversely, she’s done so many wonderful things for others. I guess that’s the reality of human nature – we’re complicated, flawed, often contradictory beings. This behavior colored my perception of her good deeds – I wish that wasn’t the case. I have to believe there’s some guilt there somewhere contributing to this situation and her handling of it, but the sort of brush-off she gives it makes for uncomfortable reading.
But overall, it’s absolutely page-turning and affecting. And it has shining moments when it’s clear what Sandra has accomplished despite her heartbreakingly tough start in life, compounded by too many instances of violence and terrible mistreatment, and yet she’s become a successful businesswoman who’s helped many people who have similarly suffered traumas. She showers them with kindness, compassion, and generosity. It’s heartening and reassuring, and as Krasnostein writes, it’s hard to imagine who will do this work as kindly as Sandra’s done it when she’s gone.
I’m glad her story is told, it’s surely a poignant and deserving one, and true to life – displaying facets of the best and the worst of human nature.
The Trauma Cleaner:
One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay, and Disaster
by Sarah Krasnostein
published March 29, 2018 by Text Publishing (UK)
April 10, 2018 by St. Martin’s Press (US)
originally published October 2, 2017 by Text Publishing (Australia)