When we know we are loved ... JANET ALBRECHTSEN
A remarkable new book takes us inside worlds so close but so far away
There’s a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that captures the loneliness of a man tethered to distant memories that grow more beautiful in his retelling of them.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Memories can do that. Good ones, bad ones, they pull at us as we relive them with our family and friends, retelling the tiers that make up our whole story. But what happens if there is no sharing of our stories? What if life derails our relationships and our will to share with others not just the quotidian events, but the big features too, the distress and the happiness that can envelop us?
Sarah Krasnostein faced this dilemma early on when she started to piece together her remarkable and award-winning first book, The Trauma Cleaner. It’s a book that is as hard to read as it is hard to put down. A story of pain and loss and loneliness, of trauma and transformations and sassy humour. And cleaning.
The Trauma Cleaner tells the extraordinary story of Sandra Pankhurst, who was Peter Collins, who became Stacey and Celestial Star, too. There are myriad transformations, tragedies that engulf a wife and children whom Peter deserts at age 23 after trying to live the “repressed normality of 1972”. Then the Change and the tremendous relief of a “light switching on”.
There is the resilience, too, that turns a drag queen and sex worker in the tiny brothels of Hay Street, Kalgoorlie, into a middle-class woman working in a funeral parlour who meets her husband “when she buried his wife”. Then the conservative-voting small businesswoman who owned the North Brighton Paint and Hardware store, then the widow and the trauma cleaning business which Pankhurst still owns and runs in Frankston, Melbourne.
Krasnostein weaves this big story among smaller, no less compelling ones about the homes she stepped into with Pankhurst and her loyal cleaning team. The young woman who died from a heroin overdose and wasn’t found for more than two weeks. The textbook hoarders such as Janice and Kim who cry and wail, resisting attempts to clean up piles of rotting rubbish as if yanking at the stuff in their home yanks at the disorder in their minds. Shane, the convicted sex offender, who lives among filth and grime and piles of dirty plates, but is very particular about having health foods in his pantry.
Dorothy, the “very, very clever” old woman who lives in her own little world so full of accumulated stuff that it takes two hours of back-breaking work to clear a metre into her foyer. It is as if someone hit the pause button, writes Krasnostein, mentioning a newspaper in Dorothy’s kitchen reporting that Evonne Goolagong (later Cawley) is playing at the Australian Open and Jimmy Carter is concerned about the state of the American economy.
There is Marilyn too, her sons largely absent, whose small home is filled with plastic bags of rotting shopping that never made it to the fridge. And Glenda, who at about 60 is close to Pankhurst’s age. Glenda was a dentist with an honours degree in psychology. Her husband long dead, her life has spiralled down while her home has filled up with piles of debris infused with the “smell of pain”.
Pankhurst brings order to the chaos of broken people and “a bespoke blend of respect, warmth, humour and interest” because that’s what every human being deserves. Despite hauling around an oxygen tank to deal with one of many health issues, Pankhurst works hard, her focus always forward to the next job, pushing away spare time that might invite her to reflect on the past. She uses the droning noise of TV to keep silence at bay at night. “I can’t do quietness,” she tells Krasnostein one day.
The price of such perpetual movement is the failure, or refusal, to make close and long-lasting friends. These are the people who would have heard Pankhurst’s stories and shared her memories, allowing her to better remember the narrative of her own life.
Last week, Krasnostein’s memoir of her, which took four years of interviews, research and writing, won top honours at the nation’s richest literary awards, picking up $125,000 for best literature and best nonfiction at the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. The author, who was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, and moved to Melbourne when she was 14, is negotiating with unnamed names who want to turn The Trauma Cleaner into a television series or a film. There is a Swedish translation under way, too. Perhaps let the Swedes, with their canny Scandi touch, bring this story to the screen?
A former lawyer, Krasnostein tells Inquirer she approached the task of recording the facts using her legal training, expecting a neat picture of triple-verified facts. She says that while her subject spoke with complete candour, telling her story was “terrifying because it was much messier than I had wanted”.
Many of Pankhurst’s memories have been lost because, as she wrote on the back of her 2014 work calendar for December 8, “No old friends.” And, “Can’t connect to people on a personal level.”
As she moved through her tumultuous life, she tended to discard the old guard at every new junction, her memories a “tangled necklace”, leaving Krasnostein to “pinch at it and pick at it, seeking slack, until, sometimes, it loosens and a line — a dented, mangled line — spreads out”.
While Pankhurst could remember the floor plan of the house in which she was abused and neglected as a young boy, she couldn’t remember whether she had a wedding reception or whether she attended the birth of her two sons. While her memories of the men she loved are not always clear, she remembers in “granular detail” her most disturbing trauma clean-up, the man who killed himself after the Melbourne Cup with tree loppers and bricks and the maggots that crowded his home. And she remembers the lady who died in the toilets at Myer.
When Krasnostein pieced together what was not remembered, a truer and more tender picture emerged. “The first draft was much more of a hagiography. This one woman’s brilliant journey of resilience,” she says, mocking herself.
“And it was a caricature. It just didn’t do her justice and if I put in the problems, the vulnerabilities of the gaps and memories, we started to come up with a much more human story. Because, while her experiences are unique, she is human in ways that all of the rest of us are, and if I can put that on the page I think that does her greater justice.”
It does justice to Krasnostein too, whose writing is both confronting and comforting, if that makes sense. The 38-year-old was able to step into an entirely foreign world, hinting at how close we are to an old woman, with her cats and her books, who reads The Economist and The Quarterly Essay but can barely move for the accumulated junk.
Phoning her father one morning, Krasnostein tells him about the well-educated woman she has just visited.
“What kind of hoarder?” he asks.
“Books and cats, mainly,” she tells the man who loves cats and has an extensive collection of books at home.
“What’s the difference between a private library and a book hoard- er?” he wonders aloud to his daughter.
The difference, writes Krasnostein, is “this phone call” she makes to her father. “And the others like it I could have made. And how strong we are when we are loved.”
This is the line that captures the book. How strong we are when we are loved. Or should it be: how strong we are when we know we are loved?
In matters of love and relationships, the objective truth doesn’t always move to the subjective. For whatever complicated, messy, unspoken or unsayable reason, people who are loved may not know that to be true, or may not allow themselves to be loved.
The other strand to Krasnostein’s book is the telling of her own trauma. It jumps out beautifully and unexpectedly at the halfway mark. In a retelling of a dream she has where some kind of disaster forces her out of her childhood home, she races to save what she can. Some books and photos, things from her father’s desk, and the dented pot she recalls that her mother would place on the stove each week.
“I cannot part with the lipstick I found softly rolling in an empty drawer months after my mother left. Or a shopping list on an envelope in her handwriting,” she writes.
“In a world that changes so quickly, and where everyone eventually leaves, our stuff is the one thing we can trust.”
Krasnostein, who spends part of each year in New York City, tells Inquirer that it was not her first preference to draw on her own delayed grief when it became clear her mother was not coming back. But she saw it as part of an unspoken contract with those whose stories she wanted to tell.
“I think it was fair to what I was asking not just of Sandra, but also of her clients, that I, too, could sit in a vulnerable space,” she says.
“Sandra had kept parts of herself far away from every intimate relationship that she’s had over her lifetime because she was terrified if they found out they would leave her.”
Krasnostein’s story of Pankhurst explores how the most intimate connections we form come from exposing our vulnerabilities and having people embrace us anyway. “You belong,” the author tells her subject more than once.
“So if I could do it a tiny bit for myself, I was in a better position to talk to these people and explain their feelings to the reader.”
This is not just a story of people hidden away from us, living in their own world, yet just next door to us or in streets similar to ours, with minds blurred by loneliness and mental illness, memories sometimes lost forever. It is a hilarious and poignant tale of a woman who defies all labels.
Sandra Pankhurst doesn’t have gay friends, she’s not active in the LGBTQI community.
She is a middle-class businesswoman who describes herself as a “long-time Liberal supporter” whose aversion is not to gay people or trans people but how she remembers herself during a time of prostitution and violence, drugs and alcohol abuse.
The way she confounds assumptions is a neat correction to identity politics and the tendency to mark people as members of a group along with an attendant set of beliefs. This is a trans story, Krasnostein says, and it’s not. Because it is Sandra’s story.
In an age when politics is weaponising culture in other ways too, there are inevitably those who will ask whether a white, middle-class writer is entitled to stray so far from her own world.
As Lionel Shriver said at Brisbane Writers Festival last year, when wearing Mexican sombreros is condemned as an act of cultural appropriation, the moral for writers is “you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats”.
Shriver, the acclaimed author of many books about people who may be foreign to us, hopes that “the felony of cultural sticky fingers” is a passing fad. The art of writing is, after all, the art of imagining and of empathy. From Shakespeare to Truman Capote, the finest authors are those who can tell a story beyond their own life experiences, drawing on emotions that we share because we are human beings, even if our experiences may differ.
On that score, Krasnostein is a very fine writer. Her debut book is a compelling and honest story of human survival, and love.
‘Sandra is human in ways that all of the rest of us are, and if I can put that on the page I think that does her greater justice’ SARAH KRASNOSTEIN
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Sandra Pankhurst, top, and with her trauma cleaning team, left Sarah Krasnostein, above, has woven Sandra’s story with her own and those of many others in a compelling work