The Trauma Cleaner – book review

The trauma cleaner : one woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay & disaster by Sarah Krasnostein is the biography of Sandra Pankhurst. This book has been popular at Cockburn Libraries since its release in 2017 and I have seen it on the reservations or returns shelves many times, but I didn’t decide to read it until after I heard about Sandra on one of my favourite podcasts, Criminal | A Bucket, a Mop, and a Sledgehammer 

The podcast episode focused mostly on the work Sandra does with Specialised Trauma Cleaning but the book provides insight into Sandra’s own life and her memories (or lack of).

Sandra Pankhurst is a fascinating person. She was born a boy in 1950s Victoria and adopted at six weeks old. As a child, there was both “the pain inflicted by touching and the pain inflicted by not touching” as ‘Peter’ (Sandra’s childhood name as given in the book, but not in truth) grew up with violence and neglect. The book also delves into Sandra’s history as a husband, father, sex worker, small business owner and trophy wife. It describes her as an unreliable narrator with memory loss as a result of drug use and trauma, and a compassionate person with the ability to help those who need her.  

Each chapter begins with a description of a house that Sandra has been tasked with cleaning. Many are the homes of hoarders, who require Sandra’s gentle persuasion that junk mail from ten years ago really is rubbish.  Some are houses when there has been a suicide or an unattended death. The book is filled with descriptions of how to deal with mould, decomposition, or odour.

After our introduction to one of Sandra’s jobs, the author discusses a part of Sandra’s life. It is clear from the writing that the author and subject have become close friends and shared many hours together. The book is so much more than stories of filth and mental illness; it is the story of a resilient and intriguing person that readers will love.

Link to Catalogue record for The trauma cleaner

I call my dad from the car and ask him about his morning, tell him about mine. ‘What kind of hoarder was she?’ he asks. ‘Books and cats, mainly,’ I tell the man who loves his cats and who I know is now actively considering his extensive book collection. ‘What’s the difference between a private library and a book hoarder?’ he wonders. We are both silent before we laugh and answer in unison: ‘Faeces.’

You can borrow this book from Cockburn Libraries in print, as an e-audiobook, or as an e-book using BorrowBox or Libby by Overdrive.

 

Awards

* Winner, Victorian Prize for Literature, 2018
* Winner, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, 2018
* Winner, Australian Book Industry Awards, General Non-Fiction Book of the Year, 2018
* Winner, Dobbie Literary Award, 2018
* Winner, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2019, Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction
* Finalist, Walkley Book Award 2018
* Longlisted, Wellcome Prize for Non-Fiction (UK)
* Shortlisted, National Biography Award, 2019
* Shortlisted, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for Non-Fiction
* Shortlisted, Indie Book Award for Non-fiction, 2018
* Shortlisted, Melbourne Prize Best Writing Award 2018
* Shortlisted, Moran Nib Literary Award
* Shortlisted, ABIA Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year, 2018

Sarah Krasnostein originally published her work as an online essay but I recommend reading the whole story.