The Trauma Cleaner

Sarah Krasnostein

The Trauma Cleaner
Text Publishing Co
1 October 2019

The Trauma Cleaner

Sarah Krasnostein

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.


Writer and lawyer Sarah Krasnostein first met Sandra Pankhurst at a conference for forensic support services. Sandra’s business card advertises ‘specialised trauma cleaning’: ‘hoarding and pet hoarding’ and ‘homicide, suicide and death scene’ are just two of the many services listed. Krasnostein is fascinated at the existence of these kinds of services and is particularly intrigued about the nature of the person who would perform them, so she contacts Sandra for an interview.

What she hears is an incredible story about a woman who has survived neglect, abuse and violence, yet manages to remain compassionate to her clients, who have traumas of their own. Born a boy in 1950s Melbourne, Sandra lived through an abusive childhood and a failed marriage with children, before beginning her life again as a drag queen, prostitute and gender reassignment patient in the 1980s. Krasnostein uncovers Sandra’s story bit by bit as she travels with her to the homes of her clients, who are in need of ‘trauma cleaning’ of their own, both physical and mental. Homes where the ‘smell is so strong it felt like a slap’ and where otherwise intelligent people live amidst decades of rotting garbage.

Krasnostein is an astute observer of human nature and her understated yet elegant prose is reminiscent of Helen Garner. She hopes this book will cleanse a little trauma from Sandra’s life through the very act of telling her story: giving her life a narrative and cohesion it has been missing, and sorely needs in order to create memory and meaning. After spotting books by Grossman, Frankle and Charriere among the squalor of the home of one client, Glenda, Krasnostein asks about her reading preferences. Glenda replies, ‘anything which shows human strength under the most appalling circumstances helps me to survive’. A perfect summary for this book.

Kara Nicholson is part of the online Readings team.

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