When we know we are loved ... JANET ALBRECHTSEN

A re­mark­able new book takes us in­side worlds so close but so far away

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER -

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

Hear Janet dis­cuss Aus­tralia’s big­gest is­sues SYD | MEL | BRIS BOOK NOW AT THEAUSTRALIANPLUS.COM.AU

DAVID KRAS­NOS­TEIN, DAVID CAIRD

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

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