A blend of biography and memoir, The Trauma Cleaner meditates on what it means to live with the memory of great pain.
Winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature, The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster is much more than a mere biography of an extraordinary life. Writer Sarah Krasnostein styles the book as a love letter to her subject Sandra Pankhurst, a trans woman who owns a trauma cleaning business and has endured unfathomable trauma herself.
In stark contrast to most biographers, who at the very least try to maintain some degree of objectivity about their subject, Krasnostein abandons any pretense of authorial distance. The author immerses herself in Sandra’s present and past, heaps effusive praise upon her, and, time and time again, addresses her directly in the narrative, often to promise her that the worst of her life is indeed behind her. At once Krasnostein positions herself as a kind of worshipper, forever in awe of Sandra, and a godlike figure, the only one capable of properly caring for the marginalized woman who looks after society’s most vulnerable members. Sandra, for her part, has described reading the book as cathartic.
The narrative’s structure is simple. Chapters alternate between describing Sandra’s daily work and reconstructing the trauma cleaner’s tumultuous past. In the present, the author follows Sandra and her team as they clean up “death, sickness, and madness,” from clearing out the homes of hoarders to retrieving overdose victims’ belongings. Krasnostein methodically records what happens and details how Sandra treats her maladjusted clients with the utmost kindness and respect. Here, the author lucidly captures the connection between Sandra’s traumatic experiences and her compulsion to clean up the aftermath of disaster. The chapters focusing on the past, by contrast, are more unconventional and less successful.
Because Sandra severely abused drugs and had few friends to share experiences with throughout her life, she never had the chance to develop a cohesive story about herself. Lacking a stable account of Sandra’s past, Krasnostein pieces together the trauma cleaner’s life story, based off the contradictory fragments that she does remember. Over the course of the book, readers learn that Sandra grew up as an adopted child in an abusive household, tried to be “normal” and raise a family, ran away, transitioned and cut contact with her children and ex-wife, endured dangerous sex work, survived rape and attempted murder, and much more. Across these lurid chapters, Krasnostein dwells in Sandra’s pain, almost fetishizing it, and glosses over the harm she herself has inflicted upon her family and friends over the years. Sandra’s life has been full of misery, and the author’s choice to overlook her subject’s flaws seems to be an attempt to radically sympathize with someone who has experienced endless trauma.
Despite her admirable goals, Krasnostein’s choice to dismiss the agony Sandra has caused others comes across as a bit unsettling. Sandra’s family suffered immensely without her income for support, and she frequently moved and changed her name in response to her wife’s many attempts to track her down; she also frequently cheated on her partners, and she dismisses as freaks the gender-nonconforming and gay friends who welcomed her after she left her wife. The author accepts all this as perfectly understandable, without ever delving into how troubling it is.
Many reviews I’ve read have been a great deal more hostile than I expected, and I suspect that part of why I enjoyed this was because of the amazing narration by Rachael Tidd, who manages to ground Krasnostein’s elaborate prose and sentimental characterization in reality.
In spite of its flaws, The Trauma Cleaner tells of an extraordinary and resilient life, and the biography is well worth checking out—at least on audio.