My goodness, other people live such interesting lives don’t they? Australian author Sarah Krasnostein’s biography of Sandra Pankhurst, The Trauma Cleaner, was a fascinating read.
The subject, Sandra, was working as a funeral director in Melbourne when she noticed a gap in the market and opened a business as a trauma cleaner. Trauma cleaning includes murder and accident scenes, but the business she started and continues to run also includes cleaning up deceased estates (this includes the specialised cleaning required when a person dies and is not found for some time), cleaning up drug labs after busts and crime scenes. A large part of Sandra’s business is cleaning and clearing out the homes of hoarders.
Various stories of Sandra’s clients are woven into the telling of her personal story, and while reading about people with mental illnesses so terrible that they cannot throw anything out is fascinating, Sandra’s personal story is even more interesting. She was born a boy, adopted as a baby and brought up in a violent and difficult home, then as a young man married and became a father. Eventually she discovered Melbourne’s gay scene and left her wife and children, eventually having gender-reassignment surgery to become a woman. She worked as a prostitute before becoming a funeral director, then married a much older man. Now, Sandra runs her own business where the physical work she does is equally as important as the emotional assistance she provides to her clients.
The Trauma Cleaner has been all over the news in Australia all of this year, having been nominated for and winning a swag of prizes, although my feeling is that the prizes were won because of the strength of the subject matter rather than because of the writing. Sandra’s personal stories are balanced with her work stories, both of which are interesting enough to have stood alone. The author lets us know that Sandra is an unreliable narrator, but she clearly feels affection and respect for her subject. On occasion, she brushes over Sandra’s version of events which I felt could have been questioned more closely, but as the story of a life, this one is certainly more interesting than most.