2017, 257 p
After I finished reading this remarkable book, I tried to think of other biographies (as distinct from memoirs) I had read of living people. I found myself rather stumped. There’s Bernadette Brennan’s recent literary biography of Helen Garner Helen Garner and her Work but at that point, I came to a dead end. I don’t read celebrity biographies. I suppose that the political biographies issued under the Quarterly Essay imprint (e.g. on Turnbull, Abbott, Gillard) might qualify, although I tend to think of them more as commentary than biography.
But The Trauma Cleaner is a biography of a living, breathing woman, of whom you would have known nothing had not Sarah Krasnostein written this book. Sandra Pankhurst is a cleaner, based in Melbourne, engaged in cleaning the places you would not want to be. The rooms in which people have died unnoticed for months; the apartments where young people have died abruptly of a drug overdose; the homes where filth exudes out from under the doors into the unkempt front yards; the homes with a veneer of order on the outside that harbour an interior palimpsest of hoarded squalor that the owner cannot control.
Sandra , who owns and manages Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services, is a hands-on worker. Not only does she know all the tricks in the trade of stain removal, but she knows the limits that timber, carpet and plaster can bear: that sometimes a built structure just cannot be salvaged from the human misery it has contained. She handles people with professional skill, particularly hoarders who have either self-referred or been referred by agencies, but she gets her own hands dirty too. She disguises her judgment of people’s weaknesses and trauma well; or perhaps she genuinely doesn’t judge. Because she has had her own trauma too.
Told in alternating chapters, we learn that Sandra was born Peter. She had a terrible childhood in Footscray – and just as the houses that STC deals with are surrounded by normality, so too a childhood of abuse and emotional deprivation was surrounded by neighbours, other kids, street kerbs and suburban disinterestedness. She had been a husband and father before her sex reassignment surgery; she had also been a drag queen, sex-worker, hardware store owner and wife.
Krasnostein accompanies Sandra as she is at work, flinching at the stench and drawn by the same fascinated horror that I felt as I read about the different jobs. That same fascinated horror pulls the reader through Sandra’s story too. Krasnostein talks with Sandra, who admits that there are whole chunks of her story and chronology that are missing through drug use or psychological blockage. She also talks with Sandra’s associates, tracks down people who have known Sandra over her life, trawls through documentary evidence. She clearly likes Sandra, and admires her, but at one point in particular, she is very angry with her. She knows that her relationship with Sandra is as brittle and contingent on acceptance as every other relationship that Sandra has had.
This is a beautifully written book. As it goes on, Krasnostein reveals herself as well, although I found this less satisfying, almost as if as author she was bumping her subject out of the spotlight, with a ‘look at me too- I’ve suffered’. Perhaps that’s unfair.
I commend Text Publishing for the photographs. They’re colour photographs and well placed in the text, tethered in the chronology of the surrounding pages instead of pre-empting the story. They come in three groups, oddly spaced throughout the narrative. You see Peter and Sandra right at the point you’re reading about. I found myself turning back to these photographs often.
I have been asking everyone I know ‘Have you read The Trauma Cleaner??’ and urging them to do so. I found it absolutely compelling and disturbing, and literally stayed up all night to finish it. It won the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Non-Fiction in 2018, and it fully deserves its success.
I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.