By Sarah KrasnosteinNon-fictionText Publishing

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster

Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife …

But as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home, she just wanted to belong. Now she believes her clients deserve no less.

A woman who sleeps among garbage she has not put out for forty years. A man who bled quietly to death in his loungeroom. A woman who lives with rats, random debris and terrified delusion. The still life of a home vacated by accidental overdose.

Sarah Krasnostein has watched the extraordinary Sandra Pankhurst bring order and care to these, the living and the dead – and the book she has written is equally extraordinary. Not just the compelling story of a fascinating life among lives of desperation, but an affirmation that, as isolated as we may feel, we are all in this together.

Portrait of Sarah Krasnostein

Sarah Krasnostein

Sarah Krasnostein was born in America, studied in Melbourne and has lived and worked in both countries. Earning her doctorate in criminal law, she is a law lecturer and researcher. Her essay, ‘The Secret Life of a Crime Scene Cleaner’, was published on Longreads and listed in Narratively’s Top 10 Stories for 2014. She lives in Melbourne, and spends part of the year working in New York City. The Trauma Cleaner is her first book.

Judges’ report

The Trauma Cleaner is one of the most unexpected books the judging panel has read. It tells stories we never hear about those who live on, below, and under, the margins of sanity and of society – of a woman­ whose job it is to wade through the mire of a hoarder’s house, and work with them so they can attempt to bring some order into their lives; a woman who cleans up after suicides and murders.

In telling the story of Sandra Pankhurst’s life, Krasnostein engages not just with the trauma experienced by those Pankhurst cleans up after, but the trauma Pankhurst herself has experienced: as a battered boy, a failed husband and father, a sex reassignment patient in the decades before there was any understanding of what that might mean, a sex worker and more. This is a book which resists the temptation to fill in the gaps. In that sense, it enacts trauma itself. Krasnostein doesn’t try and insist that all the details of these complex lives add up – she merely describes them vividly, lovingly and respectfully to make a single statement: this is a life.

Extract

This is what it says on the back of Sandra Pankhurst’s business card:

‘Excellence is no Accident’

Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Clean Up * Squalor/Trashed Properties * Preparing the Home for Home Help Agencies to Attend * Odour Control * Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes * Deceased Estates * Mould, Flood and Fire Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Clean Up * Industrial Accidents * Cell Cleaning

I first saw Sandra at a conference for forensic support services. A gaggle of public servants, lawyers and academics had just emerged from a session on offenders with acquired brain injuries to descend on urns of crappy coffee and plates of sweating cheese. I passed a card table in the lobby where brochures were spread out next to a sign inviting you to drop your business card into an ice bucket for a chance to win a bottle of shiraz. Next to the ice bucket – silver, with a stag’s head on either side – a tiny TV played scenes of before and after trauma-cleaning jobs (which brought to mind the words ‘faeces’ and ‘explosion’). Sitting behind the table a very tall woman, perfectly coiffed and tethered to an oxygen tank, fanned her hand out and invited me to enter my card. Hypnotised by her smile and her large blue eyes and the oxygen mask she wore like jewellery and the images on her TV, I haltingly explained that I don’t have business cards. I did, however, pick up one of her brochures, which I read compulsively for the remainder of the day.

Sandra is the founder of Specialised Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty Ltd. Each day for the past 20 years, her job has led her into dark homes where death, sickness and madness have suddenly abbreviated the lives inside.

Most people will never turn their mind to the notion of ‘trauma cleaning’. But once they realise that it exists – that it obviously has to – they will probably be surprised to learn that the police do not do trauma clean-up. Neither do firefighters or ambulances or other emergency services. This is why Sandra’s trauma work is varied and includes crime scenes, floods and fires. In addition, government housing and mental health agencies, real estate agents, community organisations, executors of deceased estates and private individuals all call on Sandra to deal with unattended deaths, suicides or cases of long-term property neglect where homes have, in her words, ‘fallen into disrepute’ due to the occupier’s mental illness, ageing or physical disability. Grieving families also hire Sandra to help them sort, disperse and dispose of their loved ones’ belongings.

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.

We specialise in the unpleasant tasks that you need to have taken care of. Performing a public service as vital as it is gruesome, Sandra is one of the world’s unofficial experts on the living aspects of death. So much is clear from her brochure, which also showcases her intense practicality. Quoth the Brochure of Pankhurst:

People do not understand about body fluids. Bodily fluids are like acids. They have all the same enzymes that break down our food. When these powerful enzymes come into contact with furnishings and the like, deterioration is rapid. I have known enzymes to soak through a sofa and to eat at the springs, mould growing throughout a piece of furniture, and I have witnessed the rapid deterioration of a contaminated mattress.

Most of us will never realise how many of these places there are or that they can be found in every neighbourhood, regardless of socio-economics. We will never see them or smell them or touch them. We will not know these places or lament them. But this is the milieu in which Sandra spends much of her time; it is where she works and takes phone calls and sends emails, where she laughs and makes the office small talk most of the rest of us roll out in the office elevator; it is where she passed into early and then late middle age.

STC services have the compassion to deal with the residents, a very underestimated and valued requirement by its customers.

Her advertising materials emphasise compassion, but that goes far deeper than the emotional-intelligence equivalent of her technical skill in neutralising blood-borne pathogens. Sandra knows her clients as well as they know themselves; she airs out their smells, throws out their weird porn, their photos, their letters, the last traces of their DNA entombed in soaps and toothbrushes. She does not, however, erase these people. She couldn’t. She has experienced their same sorrows.

The Premier’s 21 Shortlist