“The opposite of trauma is not the absence of trauma. The opposite of trauma is order, proportion. It is everything in its place. It is one long green couch in a sunlit corner, looking like it was built for the space and waiting for you. It is an act of wilful seeing, a conscious choice about perspective.”
― Sarah Krasnostein, The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster
Husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife. Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner is a love letter to an extraordinary ordinary life. In Sandra Pankhurst she discovered a woman capable of taking a lifetime of hostility and transphobic abuse and using it to care for some of society’s most in-need people.
Sandra Pankhurst founded her trauma cleaning business to help people whose emotional scars are written on their houses. From the forgotten flat of a drug addict to the infested home of a hoarder, Sandra enters properties and lives at the same time. But few of the people she looks after know anything of the complexity of Sandra’s own life. Raised in an uncaring home, Sandra’s miraculous gift for warmth and humour in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy mark her out as a one-off. from Goodreads.
An important trigger warning. This book had detailed section of violent rape, childhood abuse and neglect.
I used to absolutely love a British show called How Clean is Your House? Kim Woodburn would glide into these homes with her feathered gloves and start cleaning. Meanwhile Aggie MacKenzie would perform science experiments to show the dirty reality beneath the dust. The episodes are still available on Youtube and, honestly, still fun3 to watch.
When I picked up The Trauma Cleaner I expected something similar. I was prepared to peek inside the filthiest of homes. I was not prepared for a book about the effects of trauma on people. This book should actually be called, The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life. This book is far less about the cleaning of extremely dirty homes and more about how people deal with trauma, death, abuse, and violence.
Approximately a quarter of this book features Sandra and her staff cleaning homes. Each time the emphasis is put on how the home got to this state and how Sandra treats each and every person kindly, patiently, and with extreme caring. The homes that Sandra cleans have become dangerously (and sometimes deadly) dirty because trauma has somehow stripped the person living there of the will or the ability to keep their home clean and safe.
“what chips some people like a mug cracks others like an egg.”― Sarah Krasnostein, The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster
Watching Sandra interact with her clients was inspiring and, as the author pointed out, if we all treated each other with the same “warm camaraderie and non-judgment” so much pain would be spared. Because Sandra is no egg, but she doesn’t judge those who break after trauma even though she didn’t. And the remainder of the book is a biography, of sorts, of Sandra and a look at how the deepest trauma imaginable only served to make Sandra work harder for the life she wanted for herself.
The list of trauma that Sandra has been a victim of is so long and so terrible that I found myself checking, twice, to make sure this was a nonfiction book. Sandra, born male and adopted by a family who had recently lost a child, became neglectful and abusive to her once they became pregnant with biological children again. Relegated to the shed, unfed, physically abused, and not allowed to return into the house after around age nine, Sandra childhood is completely devoid of love or connection. Without a model of what family or love looks like, Sandra spent the rest of her life unable to maintain these deep and lasting connections. Not that Sandra didn’t make them. She fell in love, was married twice, had children and step-children, lovers and friends. Making friends seems to be Sandra’s superpower. Keeping them appears out of her skill set.
Perhaps this is why the author of the book forgives Sandra of every disconnection, every break up, and every friendship abandoned. And towards the end, when the author inserts her own story more frequently, serious cracks start to form in the “biography” of this book and it becomes more clearly an ode to a larger-than-life person that Sarah Krasnostein may, or may not, have put into the place that her own mother abandoned. There is no doubt in my mind, this is indeed a love letter to Sandra. An honest biography, however, it is not.
Love letter, bio-memoir, whatever you want to designate it, the writing is stunning. I read this as an audiobook and I found myself luxuriating in the words just as much as the story itself. Her writing is so strong that I find myself doing to her what she did for Sandra. I forgive Krasnostein for basing her book on someone who cannot remember their own history. I also forgive her for giving Sandra credit for things Sandra does not. The author’s legal training becomes clearer and clearer as the story continues and, where a sociologist or psychologist may simply see a survivor, Krasnostein sees an advocate.
But I find that I cannot forgive the author for certain things. Sandra wants to live her life as a woman and only brings up her surgery when the situation requires it, frequently giving the information in a rapid fire blunt manner. Giving Sandra a male birth name of Peter was an awkward way to deal with the deadnaming that Sandra refused to share and I flinched every time it was used, which was frequent. Sandra did not want to be an advocate and to paint her as such feels the height of manipulation. Sandra’s application for government licenses were obtained through subterfuge, not legal advocacy. In doing so, Sandra does what Sandra does best: puts herself first. I say this without judgement, and perhaps the inclusion of Sandra’s trauma allows me to understand her particular coping mechanism. Instead of hoarding all of her feelings and keeping everything that reminds her of her trauma, Sandra casts them all away and attempts to forget them forever.
Instead of digging through Sandra’s past I wish the author had focused on her work, her treatment of the people she was cleaning for, and her desire to help those people shut in with their trauma and their mess. This version of Sandra matches both the person Sandra is and the person Sandra wants others to be, someone who doesn’t want to understand why there is a mess but rather someone who will help you clean up, change things, and move forward from here.
BUT DON’T JUST TAKE MY WORD FOR IT
This book was originally published in 2018 and two of my favorite bloggers read and reviewed the book. Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction? review can be found here and The Pirate Captain @ The Captain’s Quarters review is here. Check them out!
Tell me, please! What is the last book you read with a misleading title?