Winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster is the fascinating biography of one of the people responsible for tidying up homes in the wake of natural—and unnatural—catastrophes and fatalities.
Homicides and suicides, fires and floods, hoarders and addicts. When properties are damaged or neglected, it falls to Sandra Pankhurst, founder of Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty. Ltd. to sift through the ashes or sweep up the mess of a person’s life or death. Her clients include law enforcement, real estate agents, executors of deceased estates, and charitable organizations representing victimized, mentally ill, elderly, and physically disabled people. In houses and buildings that have fallen into disrepair, Sandra airs out residents’ smells, throws out their weird porn, their photos, their letters, the last traces of their DNA entombed in soaps and toothbrushes.
The remnants and mementoes of these people’s lives resonate with Sandra. Before she began professionally cleaning up their traumas, she experienced her own. First, as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home. Then as a husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, and trophy wife. In each role she played, all Sandra wanted to do was belong.
The Trauma Cleaner is the extraordinary true story of an extraordinary person dedicated to making order out of chaos with compassion, revealing the common ground Sandra Pankhurst—and everyone—shares with those struck by tragedy.
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About the Author
Sarah Krasnostein is a writer and a lawyer with a PhD in criminal law. A fourth generation American and a third generation Australian, she has lived and worked in both countries. The Trauma Cleaner is her first book.
Read an Excerpt
This is what it says on the back of Sandra Pankhurst's business card:
Excellence Is No Accident
Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Cleanup * Squalor/Trashed Properties * Preparing the Home for Home-Help Agencies to Attend * Odor Control * Homicide, Suicide, and Death Scenes * Deceased Estates * Mold, Flood, and Fire Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Cleanup * 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 feces 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. Hypnotized by her smile and her large blue eyes and the oxygen mask she wore like jewelry 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 Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty. Ltd. Each day for the past twenty 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 minds to the notion of trauma cleaning, but once they realize that it exists — that it obviously has to — they will probably be surprised to learn that the police do not do trauma cleanup. 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 organizations, 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, aging, 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 catalog of the ways we die physically and emotionally, and the strength and delicacy needed to lift the things we leave behind.
We specialize 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. Body 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, mold growing throughout a piece of furniture, and I have witnessed the rapid deterioration of a contaminated mattress.
Most of us will never realize how many of these places there are or that they can be found in every neighborhood, regardless of socioeconomics. 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 emphasize compassion, but that goes far deeper than the emotional-intelligence equivalent of her technical skill in neutralizing 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.
* * *
"Hi, Sarah, it's Sandra. I believe you contacted me for an interview. If you could call me back on [number] it would be appreciated, but possibly not today, as I'm just inundated at the moment and I'm on my way to a suicide. So if you could just call me back tomorrow, maybe, on [number], thank you. Bye for now."
When I return her call, I learn that Sandra has a warm laugh and that she needs a lung transplant. She asks me when I would like to meet. I tell her that I can work around her schedule. So she says, "Okeydokey," and flips open her diary. "How about the café at the Alfred Hospital?" she suggests, explaining parenthetically that she has a couple of hours next week before she sees her lung specialist. It struck me then that, for Sandra Pankhurst, death and sickness are a part of life. Not in a Buddhist koan sort of way but in a voice mail and lunch-meeting sort of way. Over the next few years, she would reveal to me how this unrelenting forward orientation, fundamental to her character, has saved her life.
During my time with Sandra, I met a bookbinder, a sex offender, a puppeteer, a cookbook hoarder, a cat hoarder, a wood hoarder, and a silent woman whose home was unfit for her many rabbits and whose skin was so swollen that I thought at any moment it would burst like a water balloon. I heard Sandra bend and flex language into words and idioms she made her own: supposably, sposmatically, hands down pat! I had the rapturous experience, many times, of simply listening to her swear. I saw wonders of the dark world, as true of our collective human life as radio stations and birthday cards: walls that had turned soft from mold, food that had liquefied, drinks that had solidified, flies raised on human blood, the pink soap of the recently deceased and eighteen-year-old chicken bones lying like runes at the bottom of a pot.
I listened to Sandra's news like it was the middle of the Han dynasty and she had just returned west from the Silk Road, except that she was really just telling me about her morning or her afternoon — about waiting for the psych team to collect the man who killed his dog so that she could clean its blood off his floors; about a "love triangle stabbing;" about the man who died in the ceiling of his home while spying on his family; about the dead hermit eaten by his dog; about the 240-liter container of syringes she filled and removed from a drug house; about the man who threw himself on a table saw and the mess he left for his family to find.
I learned the many sides of Sandra: the social commentator ("We've some areas where no life skills are taught; we are getting generation after generation that are slovenly"); the bawdy ("I've had more cock than I've had hot dinners"); the confident ("If I had better health, I'd run for government and I'd be a kick-ass person"); the self-compassionate ("I have no shame of what I had to do to get to where I needed to go"); the philosophical ("Everything happens for a reason, and it's really hard to say why it happens at the time"); the perfectionist ("I've always set tough standards. As a prostitute, I was a great prostitute. As a cleaner, I'm a great cleaner. Whatever I do, I do to the best of my ability."); and the positive ("This year is going to be my best year ever").
Which is all to say, I learned that Sandra is at once exactly like you or me or anyone we know, and at the same time, she is utterly peerless.
One thing Sandra is not, however, is 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. She is open about the fact that drugs have impacted her memory ("I don't know, I can't remember. The lesson to be learned is this: Do not take drugs; it fucks your brain."). It is also my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced.
But there is something else of which I have become convinced over my years of speaking with her. Most people Sandra's age can tell you in detail about how they came up, about the excitements and tragedies of being a young adult out in the world for the first time. This isn't because their brains are any better than Sandra's or because they did less drugs or drank less or had kinder childhoods. It is because they've told their stories more often. Because they were consistently surrounded by friends or parents or partners or children who were interested in seeing them as a whole person.
This is how true connection occurs. This is how events become stories and stories become memories and memories become narratives of self and of family from which we derive identity and strength. Part of the reason the time line is never clear for Sandra, no matter how many times we go over it, is that, until now, she has never had any reason to repeat it honestly or in full.
"A lot of people know some of the story, but they do not know all of the story." And here it hits me what it is we are doing by telling this story. It is something at once utterly familiar and completely alien to Sandra: we are clearing away the clutter of her life out of basic respect for the inherent value of the person beneath.
Using words as disinfectants, we are trauma cleaning. Word by word, sentence by sentence, we are reuniting fragments scattered by chaos to create heat and light. We cannot always eliminate what is bad or broken or lost, but we can do our best to put everything in its place, such Order being the true opposite of Trauma.
And so your story is imperfect, Sandra, but it is here, made complete, and it is my love letter to you.
A short drive north from the city of Geelong, a woman lives in a house with broken windows and dark words sprayed across its exterior in writing that looks like it came from the hand of a giant. It says I HATE YOU and BRAIN and WELL BEING? and HUMANITY and THE SHAME. The windows facing the street are covered, variously, with blankets, a battered blind held in place by a blue plastic flute, and a sheet of cardboard. On the lawn, random mounds of large rocks, bricks, wooden planks, metal grilles, and wires dot the dying grass. A large handwritten sign that says HYPACRITES is balanced across two of the mounds. There are a couple of sun- bleached garden gnomes and an industrial-sized bag of mulch on which more words have been scrawled in black paint: SAME SONG, SWORDS, HOMELESS.
Sandra is sitting in an immaculate white SUV with a large white sticker stretched across the back window that says Missibitchi. She is scheduled to do a cleaning quote at 9:00 A.M. As always, she is early and she is on her phone. Someone from the Salvation Army inquiring about laundry costs for a client with bedbugs. Sandra replies that it's thirty-five dollars per bag, plus pickup and delivery.
She covers the phone and whispers guiltily, "I just started charging for that." Wrapping up the call, she pops her door open and unfolds her long, slim legs from the car. Sandra is wearing bright pink lipstick, a navy blouse, dark skinny jeans, and pristine white ballet flats. As always, her platinum-blond hair is perfectly blow-dried, and it floats slowly around her as she turns in the morning light.
The tenant at this morning's job is named Kim. Sandra has been briefed that Kim describes herself as a puppeteer, a magician, and a pet trainer and that, though she is a smart woman, she becomes extremely suspicious of those trying to help. She will talk about her self-diagnosed conditions, which include bipolar disorder and a tumor in her head. Kim is "very angry" because the previous cleaner got rid of her pets, "thirty rats, all dead." I'm still processing the image of thirty dead rats as we walk toward the house. Sandra starts explaining that the goal is to make Kim sufficiently comfortable with the cleaning process so that the job causes her minimal distress.
To reach the short flight of stairs leading up to Kim's front door, Sandra walks down a cracked concrete driveway, around the colossal bag of mulch, past a red sombrero, and under a low-slung makeshift hammock full of water. Though Kim opens her front door, she remains hidden deep inside while Sandra explains that she is here to help but first needs to have a look around.
"I'm from a private enterprise," Sandra explains, breathless from the strain the small climb has placed on her deteriorating lungs. "We do organization. We work with you, looking after your stuff and making sure it's safe and sound. We do it in conjunction with you; we work together." She is fighting for breath, audibly sucking it in where she can between words. After a beat, peering up at Sandra, Kim seems to accept this and steps back, allowing her in.
You could easily mistake Kim for a young boy, but she is a mother in her early forties. She is short; she is fine featured and small boned and bloated. She has pale skin and blue eyes that are darting and swooping like swallows. She is wearing heavy black work boots, baggy khaki pants, a big black T-shirt, and a long black scarf — also a fingerless black glove on one hand. There is an old black blanket wrapped around her waist like a skirt. Her blond hair has been hacked into a bob, and a white road of scalp shines out where a strip has been randomly shaved through it. She has homemade tattoos on one arm. A long wooden spoon has been tied with rope around her shoulders. Standing in her doorway, emerging from the cavernous darkness of her home, she would present as some type of troglodytic warrior but for the fact that she is radiating fear so vibrantly that it is contagious.
"Can you just watch where you walk?" Kim asks. "I've made it as safe as possible." Her voice, too, is that of a young boy, piping but gruff, trying to be brave. She gestures toward a box and says in an offhanded way, "I study magician stuff, not that I'll ever do it."
Stepping inside, Sandra puts her hand on Kim's shoulder and says, "I hear that you're an animal trainer. I need help with a dog. Here, look at this." She starts swiping through photos on her phone, her long red nail clicking crisply on the screen until she gets to a shot of her Lana, small and white, staring at the camera mid-shiver. "She's Lana Turner, and I'm Bette Davis," Sandra explained the first time I met that damaged and diminutive creature, who barked continuously at a pitch that made me squint. "She's my security girl. I got her from the animal shelter, but she rescued me."
Sandra explains to Kim how Lana was probably abused because she cowers at any quick movement, how the dog still refuses to be picked up and runs off, which is real rough because of her lung problem, you see? Kim cracks a half smile and drops suddenly onto all fours before explaining from down there that Sandra simply needs to adopt a "submissive, permissive physical language" with the dog.
Sandra nods at the words with vague interest, not conscious of the fact that she has just intuitively executed that same move with Kim, who — even in explaining this — is mirroring it right back at Sandra. "Right. You can help me, I can help you," Sandra says. "We'll work together." She looks at her surroundings, raring to begin.
What Sandra does here is magnificent. Beautiful. If we all talked to each other in this way, with warm camaraderie and complete nonjudgment, much pain would be spared and happiness generated. And though I will not say that it is entirely altruistic — that so unselfconsciously does she handle her wounded clients that she appears, from where I stand, like Saint Francis of Assisi cooing at an anguished dove — it is still absolutely heartening to watch.
Excerpted from "The Trauma Cleaner"
Copyright © 2017 Sarah Krasnostein.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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