“The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster” by Sarah Krasnostein
Review by Terri Schlichenmeyer
c.2018, St. Martin’s Press
$26.99/$34.99 Canada 291 pages
Wash your hands thoroughly. That’s good advice, no matter where you are. At the risk of sounding germophobic, you never know what lurked on that which you just touched. Stay healthy, keep clean, be tidy, and wash your hands because, as you’ll see in the new book “The Trauma Cleaner” by Sarah Krasnostein, messy life, messy house.
"The woman didn’t seem very old, but it was really hard to tell. She wouldn’t let anyone past her screen door – as if the stench wasn’t enough to keep most people away."
Hoarder situations like that, suicides, undiscovered deaths, and accidents are business-as-usual for Sandra Pankhurst, 60-something owner of Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) in Australia. But as author Sarah Krasnostein learned when she befriended her, Pankhurst extends to those clients compassion, and nothing less.
There was ample reason for that. Although many of the questions Krasnostein asked Pankhurst were waved away with claims of disremembering, it’s true that Pankhurst was born a boy, raised as a boy, became a man, married a woman, and fathered two sons. But “Peter,” as Krasnostein pseudonymously calls Pankhurst then, was hiding a part of himself so, soon after his youngest son’s birth, he left his family to live as a woman.
Though “her reality is as conflicted as it is real,” Pankhurst told Krasnostein tales of being a sex-worker and a madam. Dates and locales may’ve been incorrect and names forgotten, but it’s also true that Pankhurst eventually fully transitioned, and continued to work in the sex industry until she was raped and almost lost her life. She fell in love, fell out of love, fell in love again, married an older man, and divorced.
It was because of her ex that Pankhurst founded STC.
“As a boss,” says Krasnostein, “Sandra is, variously, mother hen… bad cop… and hanging judge.” Her business cleans up sites affected by hoarding and death, and she’s matter-of-fact about bugs, vermin, and smells as her staff hauls away pathogen-soaked furniture while ensuring that next-of-kin are treated with kindness.
Says Pankhurst, “None of us know what tomorrow’s got in store.”
As enjoyable as this unique tale is, there are a few things you’ll need to know before you sweep through “The Trauma Cleaner.”
First of all, in her get-to-know-you time, author Sarah Krasnostein became close friends with her subject, which is good in most cases. Here, though, Krasnostein uses familiarity to gush about her subject in a way that could make readers wince uncomfortably. She’s also exceedingly, perhaps needlessly, explicit in details of a sexual nature while largely ignoring big opportunities for enlightenment on the business side of the book.
The goodness – and there’s an industrial-sized dustpan full of it – comes between the lines. This is a biography of cringing, compassion, and somebody’s-got-to-do-it resourcefulness, plus irritations, but with a breezy heft of fabrication built in. It’s so singular that it’s almost irresistible; indeed, if you can get past the gushing and the gruesome, “The Trauma Cleaner” is a book you shouldn’t wait to get your hands on.