I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t planned to read Sarah Krasnostein’s biography The trauma cleaner. I feared it might be one of those sensationalised, voyeuristic stories, but how wrong I was. I thank Brother Gums and partner for this great birthday gift.
I was wrong because … no, let me start with why I thought what I thought. The subject of this biography, Sandra Pankhurst, is a transgender woman, now in her early-sixties. She’s been a drag queen and a sex worker, and now has a trauma cleaning business, which means she cleans houses after murders and other difficult, messy deaths. It also means that she cleans the houses of hoarders, particularly those whose hoarding has resulted in squalid living conditions. And there’s more. Pankhurst was also an abused, neglected and rejected adopted child, and she experienced the violent death of her pregnant girlfriend. You can see why I feared what I did.
But, I couldn’t have been more wrong, for two main reasons – Sarah Pankhurst is a compelling human being, and Sarah Krasnostein a wonderful writer who knows her subject well. I’m not surprised that the book is doing well on the award circuit this year, including winning the 2018 Victorian Prize for Literature.
Born apparently a boy, and adopted when 6-weeks-old by a couple to replace their son who’d died during childbirth, Pankhurst’s life was fraught from the start. He was adopted because his parents had been told they couldn’t have more biological children, but his life was upended five years later when the inevitable happened. A son was born, followed by another two years later. His parents told him they’d made a mistake, because now they had two sons, and proceeded to increasingly exclude him from the family circle. He was physically and emotionally abused and neglected. Unbelievable – except that we all know, don’t we, that human beings are capable of unbelievable cruelty.
Eventually, Pankhurst left home, married, and had children, but his gender dysphoria began to affect his ability to live the life he’d forged. He left his family, and over the next couple of decades was a drag queen and sex worker, and underwent sex reassignment surgery in its early days in Australia, to become the person now known as Sandra. She lost a pregnant partner through a vicious assault by a club bouncer, and worked in the brothels of Kalgoorlie. All this at a time when gay and transgender people were ostracised and brutalised, particularly by those in authority. Then she married an older man, George. She ran a small hardware business with him, and became a respected leader in her community. It was after this business failed that Pankhurst moved into cleaning and thence to her current speciality of trauma cleaning.
Now, popular wisdom would say that a person so neglected and abused would end up abusing others, or, at the very least, be bitter, but not so Pankhurst, which makes her an amazing being, or, as Krasnostein says, “utterly peerless”. Here is just one example of her tender but firm care of a hoarder – Janice, whom she and her team struggle to keep from going through the bags of “rubbish” being thrown out.
And then, speaking to herself [Janice this is], sharp and low, ‘Why do you do this? You know what rubbish is.’
‘Because you see yourself as rubbish,’ Sandra says. ‘Time to start seeing the good in life. You deserve it.’ The angel statue suddenly slips off the couch and bounces on the carpet; a wing snaps off.
‘Is that a bad omen?’ Janice asks, looking up at Sandra frantically.
‘You know what it’s saying?’ Sandra answers with a smile. ‘I’m broken but I’m not dead.’
And this is what she does, time and time again, building up her damaged clients, gently guiding them to make better decisions, and, above all, treating them with absolute dignity, all the while surrounded by a squalor most of us would run a mile from.
And now Krasnostein
But what makes this book so captivating is Krasnostein’s skills in telling it to reveal Pankhurst’s extraordinariness. I’ll start with the mundane, the book’s structure. It begins with an untitled preface in which Krasnostein introduces Pankhurst, and then moves into the first and unnumbered chapter titled Kim, who turns out to be one of Krasnostein’s clients. From here we move to the numbered chapter 2 which begins the chronicle of Pankhurst’s biography with her childhood. The book then progresses in alternating named and numbered chapters – switching that is, between clients and biography – until the last two chapters which are both numbered. This structure does a number of things, one of which is to show, as we go, how Pankhurst’s own experiences have made her the empathetic, but no-nonsense, trauma cleaner (no, person) she is.
This brings me to the book’s genre – a biography of a living person. To write it, Krasnostein had to traverse several mine-fields, the first being the presence of the subject. It’s clear that Krasnostein is close to her subject, which could make us question her objectivity. Fortunately, I’m not a huge believer in objectivity, but I do believe in being thoughtfully analytical, and this is what Krasnostein achieves. She doesn’t hide her admiration of Pankhurst. Indeed she addresses Pankhurst in her “preface” calling the book “my love letter to you”.
Related to this minefield is the fact-gathering one. There are gaps in Pankhurst’s memory. She is not, Krasnostein says, “a flawlessly reliable narrator”:
She is in her early sixties and simply not old enough for that to be the reason why she is so bad with the basic sequence of her life, particularly her early life. Many facts of Sandra’s past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality.
Krasnostein suggests various reasons for this lack of reliability, including drugs, trauma, and the fact that she has not spent her life surrounded by people who have always known her and with whom she’s shared life’s stories again and again, building up a personal history. Makes sense – and suggests another fallout from the ostracism and neglect experienced by people like Pankhurst.
One of these Pankhurst-memory-gaps relates to her first marriage. Whenever Krasnostein questions her about this time in her life, about the way she left her wife and children, pretty much high-and-dry and with no ongoing interest or involvement, Pankhurst, who exhibits such empathy in so much of her life, seems unable to answer. Krasnostein writes – and this is also a good example of her gorgeous style and of her attempt to get at “the truth”:
When I ask these questions, Sandra genuinely seems to be considering them for the first time and uninterested in pursing them further. We have floated across the line and here we stay, becalmed, past her outer limits. The mediaeval horizon where you simply sailed off the edge of the earth or were swallowed by the monstrous beasts that swam there.
With a biography of a non-famous living person, there are few documentary sources against which the biographer can validate what the subject says, but there are other people. And Krasnostein speaks to them, including this first wife, Linda, who was treated so poorly but who seems to bear no animosity. She’s amazing too. That’s the thing about this book: there’s such a display of basic human compassion amongst people, many of whom have so little.
And finally, if you haven’t already noticed, there’s the language. It frequently took my breath away with its clarity and freshness. Here’s a description of Sandra after she’d experienced a brutal rape while working in a Kalgoorlie brothel:
It’s not the first time she’s had crippling pain that she pushes into a tight little marble and drops down through the grates of her mind, somewhere deep below.
It may be that I loved this book so much because I had no real expectations, but I think it’s more than that. The trauma cleaner is an elegantly conceived and warmly written book about a woman who could teach us all something, I’m sure, about tolerance, acceptance, and respect. With a red-face, I recommend it.