What an exquisitely written book! Author Sarah Krasnostein spent four years getting to know Sandra Pankhurst and then wrote The Trauma Cleaner, a biographical account of Sandra’s life that tells her extraordinary story.
Born as Peter Collins, Sandra was adopted as a baby, but then treated terribly by her adoptive family. Thrown out of her home as a teenager, she married at 19 and had two sons but was struggling with the fact that she didn’t want to be a man and didn’t want to be married. She was transitioning in Australia in the 1960s/70s, so being a man trying to live her life as a woman meant she was rejected by mainstream society, leaving only drag shows and prostitution as ways to make money. She had gender reassignment surgery in 1980 and now lives as a woman.
Sandra has had many jobs, cumulating in her very successful trauma cleaning business. Her job means she is often in situations that few people are ever privy to: the scene after a person has killed themselves, people with depression who haven’t cleaned their house in years, hoarders who can’t part with a single thing and are living in mountains of rubbish. What author Sarah Krasnostein does so well is describe not only the tantalising detail of the trauma cleans, but she pulls the human element out of each situation, taking a look at the circumstances that have led these people to be in the place they are now, she explains that people can have a law degree on their wall and still live in squalor – inescapable hoarding tendencies do not discriminate. She also shows how Sandra helps these people far beyond just cleaning their house. Sandra is truly an extraordinary woman: it’s the combination of her riveting life story and the people we meet on the trauma cleans that make this book so memorable.
Despite the often hard-to-listen to (this was an audiobook for me and – just to say – the narrator, Rachael Tidd was brilliant, really added even more depth to this already layered story) points in the book – some of the things Sandra went through were just horrific – I actually couldn’t wait until it was time to pop in my headphones and listen to more of it, thanks to Sandra herself. I have never encountered a person with such enthusiasm, such warmth, such an advocate of the power of resilience and positive thinking, even when faced with seemingly impossible situations. That’s not to say she doesn’t struggle, it’s just how she chooses to approach the things life throws at her that’s inspirational, as she says, “I’m an optimist.”
The Trauma Cleaner is a rare case of exquisite storytelling meets a stunningly interesting real-life story – I’m pretty sure my empathy levels increased after reading this. Sandra is truly an inspirational woman and Sarah is a fantastic writer. Kind of obsessed with both of them now.