Tuesday, 24 July 2018

The Survivor

In May I had the pleasure of attending a session at the Sydney Writers' Festival on The Trauma Cleaner, in which author Sarah Krasnostein spoke about the award winning biography she had written.

The subject of her book is Sandra Pankhurst, a business woman who specialises in trauma cleaning: attending crime scenes and homes of hoarders, and restoring them to order and tidiness. This is not a job for the faint-hearted. Rather it requires someone with a deep empathy, a desire to heal and an iron gut to get past the rotting food, vermin, mould, bodily fluids and accumulated detritus.

But Pankhurst's unusual job is only one aspect of her extraordinary life. She was born male at birth and experienced a deeply unhappy, abusive childhood in the family to which she was adopted. She married and had children, before undergoing the transformative surgery that would forever change her life. Sandra then worked as a prostitute in Melbourne and Kalgoorlie, surviving a violent assault. Later, she found love, married Mr Pankhurst and found more mainstream work in a funeral parlour and running her own businesses. Her work for the past twenty years, cleaning the squalor left by others, is a job she takes pride in and excels at.

Krasnostein has crafted a remarkable tale, inserting chapters about Sandra's work with clients in amongst the story of her life. Sandra's memory is faulty, marred by years of drug and alcohol abuse and suppressed by trauma, so Krasnostein has had to piece together the fragments of Sandra's reminiscences and bring order to her life story. Sandra is an incredible woman, who has picked herself up over and over again, and managed to move beyond the pain and abandonment.

Krasnostein writes that: "Sandra is at once exactly like you or me or anyone we know and, at the same time, she is utterly peerless." I believe this to be true. Sandra is unlike anyone I have ever met, and yet once you get past our differences, she is like me and the other women I know, a woman with a strong heart, deep empathy and a desire to belong.

The Trauma Cleaner is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. It pushed me out of my comfort zone several times, and made me think about how other people live. The stories of Sandra's clients, the hoarders, were particularly heartbreaking. They had gone from being functioning, intelligent, family-oriented people to living in a crushing environment surrounded by filth they cannot part with. Each one needing help, needing empathy, needing love.

This book has won many awards this year, including the Victorian Prize for Literature, Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Non-Fiction, ABIA General Non-Fiction Book of the Year, and been shortlisted for countless others.