Sarah Kras­nos­tein The Trauma Cleaner

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

This is a book as mul­ti­fac­eted as its sub­ject.

It’s a metic­u­lously put-to­gether bi­og­ra­phy of a fas­tid­i­ously groomed woman whose busi­ness it is to clean up af­ter mur­der, sui­cide and hoard­ing messes. It’s a won­drous por­trait of an in­spir­ing char­ac­ter who has been, at var­i­ous times in her life, the wife of a re­spectable man, the de­voted lover of an­other, a rape survivor, a sex worker and drag queen with a preg­nant girl­friend, a hus­band and fa­ther and a sadis­ti­cally abused young boy. It’s an elo­quent dis­course on trauma, pain and ways of cop­ing, or not. It’s a his­tory of the law and polic­ing in Vic­to­ria with re­gard to its LGBTQI com­mu­nity. It’s a jig­saw puz­zle with some pieces missing, some per­ma­nently dis­or­dered and oth­ers willed into cre­ation. It’s the fre­quently sur­pris­ing and some­times funny story of a potty-mouthed trans­gen­der busi­ness­woman and long-time Lib­eral Party sup­porter.

The Trauma Cleaner is also an act of love by a writer whose em­pa­thy for and de­vo­tion to San­dra Pankhurst, her sub­ject, runs deep for rea­sons she slowly re­veals. The book, in au­thor Sarah Kras­nos­tein’s words, is it­self a “trauma clean­ing” with words as dis­in­fec­tants: “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.”

Each sec­tion of the book is loosely and in­tu­itively struc­tured around a dif­fer­ent trauma-clean­ing job around Mel­bourne. This is clean­ing as in hazmat suits, crow­bars and in­dus­trial-grade stain re­movers, not just mops and buck­ets. In the case of hoard­ers, Pankhurst soothes the anx­i­eties of the de­mented and the dis­tressed while her team chips away at con­gealed moun­tains of garbage and shit and gos­sip mag­a­zines, hauls off fur­ni­ture half-dis­solved by the en­zymes in bod­ily flu­ids, and scrubs ooz­ing stains off the walls and ceil­ings.

Kras­nos­tein fol­lows her around, awestruck, gamely sit­ting be­side her on rot­ting beds cov­ered in food con­tain­ers and crawl­ing with ver­min, as Pankhurst per­suades some of the sad­dest and loneli­est peo­ple in the world to part with their de­cayed pos­ses­sions and an­cient phone bills. Just as Pankhurst and her team me­thod­i­cally clear away the de­bris of their clients’ lives and homes, so does Kras­nos­tein whit­tle away at the fortress-like walls Pankhurst has erected from de­nial and for­get­ful­ness to re­veal the hu­man be­ing un­derneath: “You be­long,” she writes. “You be­long, you be­long.” CG

Text, 272pp, $32.99

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