Review: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein


Title: The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster

Author: Sarah Krasnostein

Published: October 2nd 2017, Text Publishing

Status: Read July 2019


My Thoughts:


Sarah Krasnostein, law lecturer and researcher with a PhD in Criminal Law, first met Sandra Pankhurst at a conference for forensic support services, where Sandra sat in the lobby, advertising her Victorian based company, Specialised Trauma Cleaning (STC).

““This is what it says on the back of Sandra Pankhurst’s business card:

‘Excellence is no Accident’

Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Clean Up * Squalor/Trashed Properties * Preparing the Home for Home Help Agencies to Attend * Odour Control * Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes * Deceased Estates * Mould, Flood and Fire Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Clean Up * Industrial Accidents * Cell Cleaning”

Intrigued by Sandra’s profession, Sarah arranges an interview, but soon finds that Sandra herself, is equally as fascinating. The Trauma Cleaner is less a story about the chaos faced at the scenes STC attends, and more about the trauma that Sandra has endured, and overcome, during her life.

“Many facts of Sandra’s past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality. She is open about the fact that drugs have impacted her memory (‘I don’t know, I can’t remember. The lesson to be learnt is this: Do not take drugs, it f***s your brain.’). It is also my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced.”

Sandra, born a boy and named Peter, suffered horribly as a child, neglected and abused by his adoptive family. Kicked out of home at seventeen, finding work as a fitter and turner, he was married at nineteen, and a father by the age of twenty. Shortly after the birth of his second son however, he deserts his wife, having finally discovered a community that is accepting of a long denied truth, Peter is transgender. What follows is a double course of female hormones, a career as a drag performer and a sex worker, a long period of partying, drink and drug taking, a series of name changes, sex reassignment surgery, and several relationships that do not end well. Eventually Sandra settles down, becoming a successful businesswoman, then a trophy wife to a much older man. But when she is widowed, Sandra is forced to reinvent herself again, and despite ill health (her liver is damaged, and she is in need of a lung transplant), she starts a domestic cleaning agency, which eventually evolves into Specialised Trauma Cleaning.

I imagine that Sandra is a woman who is in possession of great personal charisma, and it’s clear that Krasnostein grew to greatly admire her during the time she spent with her, evidenced by the way that the author largely glosses over Sandra’s flaws, and in the occasional florid turn of phrase that seems designed to obfuscate less palatable truths. However, Sandra’s life experiences are fascinating, and as flawed as she may be, she is undoubtedly a remarkable, resilient woman, who has led an extraordinary life.

“We specialise in the unpleasant tasks that you need to have taken care of.”

On the job with Sandra, accompanied by Sarah, we visit a handful of contracted assignments, among them; a woman tortured by mental illness who shares her home with rats, broken furniture and adorns the walls with ‘art’ that illustrates her pain; the small apartment in which a young woman overdosed, and remained undiscovered for weeks; and the home of a elderly woman with a carpet of champagne bottles, and barricades of wine casks. The squalor, and the smell, of these, and other circumstances, is well described, but for most of us can only be imagined. The type of work STC undertakes is clearly unpleasant physical labour, but it is also obvious that interacting with the clients of the service requires a person with a very specific set of skills, which Sandra undeniably possesses.

“Compassion. Great compassion, great dignity and a good sense of humor ’cause you’re gonna need it. And a really good sense of not being able to take the smell in, cause they stink. Putrid.”

Though I wanted to read The Trauma Cleaner because of a somewhat ghoulish interest in the subject of trauma cleaning, I wasn’t really all that disappointed to find that this book focused so heavily on Sandra’s personal life. It is, all told, a compelling portrayal of an amazing woman, and her unusual work.


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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Vicki
    Jul 27, 2019 @ 04:42:19

    I would like to read it if it was more about the trauma cleaning but since it’s more about Sandra’s personal life I think I’ll pass. I’ve always regretted not going to school to be a forensic science technician.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. Malvina
    Jul 27, 2019 @ 08:59:14

    I listened to the Audible version, which was excellent. Compelling story.

    Liked by 1 person


  3. Cathy746books
    Jul 27, 2019 @ 20:38:38

    I’m really keen to read this – for the trauma cleaning side of things, but I’ve read a lot of reviews saying that it is more of a personal memoir so I’m not sure it will be for me.

    Liked by 1 person


  4. Mystica
    Jul 28, 2019 @ 08:04:55

    This sounds such a complicated intriguing read. Thanks for the review.

    Liked by 1 person


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