The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster, by Sarah Krasnostein. The Text Publishing Company, ISBN 978-1-92549-85-23.
I have read many biographies and autobiographies of trans women. Without demeaning the life experience of these women, I couldn’t help thinking after reading a few of them that their journey was similar to many others and that their books did not contribute much to the conversation. It’s safe to say I never had that reaction to The Trauma Cleaner.
The trauma cleaner is Australian transwoman Sandra Pankhurst. She was adopted at six weeks by parents who had been told, after losing a son in childbirth, that they could have no more biological children. Later, however, when first one son was born and then another, her parents told Sandra (Peter at the time) she had been adopted as a replacement to the son that had died and that they had made a mistake. Her dad built a low shed in the back yard and she was evicted from the house. She would live there instead. There followed years of beatings and food deprivation that left her skin scarred. “In the taxonomy of pain there is only the pain inflicted by touching and the pain of not touching. Peter grew up an expert in both.”
Peter marries young. The bride’s family and indeed his own mother suspect he is gay, but marriage seems “the best chance at repressed normality offered by Melbourne in 1972”, a motivation any trans person living in those times would understand. However, also not surprisingly, it didn’t work. “When their divorce was finalized on 22 August 1977, Peter Collins, also known as Stacey Phillips, was listed on the papers at address unknown.”
By this time Sandra (or Stacey) is employed in sex work. “The cops beat Peter and his friends for looking too much like men, or too much like women… The cops beat them for the same reasons that the state has made it legal to arrest them and fine them and imprison them: their very presence is, to use the legislative terminology, riotous, indecent, offensive, insulting; grossly indecent; an outrage on decency.”
The book The Trauma Cleaner is more than just Sandra’s story, however. Every second chapter is a visit to one of the homes Sandra visits as founder and owner of Specialised Trauma Cleaning, a business that evolved from the house cleaning business she started after a failed marriage and near bankruptcy. While some of these visits are scenes of suicides, most are to homes of hoarders. When author Sarah Krasnostein, who spent several years working with Sandra, asks her which jobs she preferred, her answer is unequivocal: “I’d rather a dead body anytime.”
It’s exhausting dealing with hoarders, convincing them that their faeces smeared house, with rotting food left for months on the kitchen counters and rubbish piled to the ceiling really does needs a good cleaning. It’s a constant play of coaxing, encouragement, nonchalance and truth telling that Sandra manages with a big dose of compassion. Unlike Krasnostein, whose sensitive ruminations on what makes people’s lives turn so horribly wrong are often illuminating, Sandra doesn’t think about the why. “I see, really, mental illness,” she says.
It’s easy to speculate that her own experiences have cultivated within her this compassion for others, and yet often she has endured more than the clients she serves: an incomprehensibly cruel childhood, sex work, rape, beatings, corrupt cops and decades of vindictive Australian bureaucracy towards trans people. It’s a life in which the best reward is what Sandra seems to be chasing: “normalcy” and acceptance.
Krasnostein warns us early on that Sandra is not a reliable narrator and that she had at times to piece her back story together. This she describes also as a form of trauma cleaning. “…we are clearing away the clutter of her life out of basic respect for the inherent value of the person beneath.”
The reason this works is that we trust Krasnostein as a narrator. Before we learn late in the book of her own personal experience with trauma, we have come to respect her as a story teller through the sensitivity, perceptiveness and intelligence she shows in her curiosity about Sandra’s clients:
Janice sips a little water and stands sweating in the sun. She cannot remain outside for more than a few seconds before she is compelled to run back inside and check the cleaners haven’t thrown out anything of value. You can see the compulsion overtaking her, strangling her like a vine. At first she makes little excuses each time she darts back inside: she forgot her phone, her keys, she just needs to check on something, needs to check one last thing, oops, forgot one little thing, just one moment, be right back. But then, despite assuring Sandra that now she’ll have a good rest out here, Janice gives in to the pressure mounting up inside her and dashes back in to claw through her rubbish bags. I can see it and I can feel it: intrusive thoughts are circling Janice like sharks, they are snapping at her, giving her less and less time between assaults, before dragging her under.
This is good writing and The Trauma Cleaner is a fine book. Sandra Pankhurst is a remarkable woman whose own difficult life undoubtedly influences the humanity and decency that she brings to her company’s business. It is, however, also a moving portrait of lives in pain that leaves the reader much to contemplate.