Trigger warning: this piece features discussion of violence and rape.
Have you ever thought about who cleans up the aftermath of trauma and tragedy? Who cleans up the sites of homicides, suicides, and the homes of extreme hoarders where filth is so overwhelming they are almost buried inside? In the extraordinary biography The Trauma Cleaner, writer Sarah Krasnostein describes the life and experiences of such a person - Sandra Pankhurst - who worked as a trauma cleaner for over twenty years. In doing so she explores the depths of human loneliness, resilience, and compassion.
Sandra Pankhurst has seen and experienced more trauma in her lifetime than a person ever should, and more than most could survive. She experienced trauma as a baby boy adopted by Catholic parents who were abusive and neglectful throughout his entire childhood and despised him for what they presumed to be homosexuality. She experienced trauma as a transitioning transgender person experiencing police brutality. She lost a partner and unborn child to violence. She is a survivor of rape.
Despite these experiences, and perhaps in part due to them, Sandra has developed a career in trauma cleaning - a job that requires “...dirty, disturbing, backbreaking physical labor of transcendentally exhausting proportions.” She goes through the accumulated waste of people’s lives, the signs of a better life not yet lived, with sensitivity and compassion. Krasnostein writes: “Despite having experienced worse blows than many of her clients, she is the one who comes in to make order out of their chaos. The undeniable boost this gives her is not a simple question of shadenfreude or, at the other end of the spectrum, altruism. It is the product of meaningful work: the sense of purpose we create by cultivating our gifts and sharing them with the world.”
The book takes the reader into the homes of those who require Sandra Pankhurst’s services, and describes some of the events of Sandra’s murky and imperfect past. Without being voyeuristic, this biography shows us the wide-reaching effects of trauma, the way people manage or mismanage vulnerability, and one particular woman’s non-judgmental approach to caring for those who many have left to remain buried in the ongoing wreckage of their past.
The Trauma Cleaner is the most engrossing biography I’ve read since Masha Gessen’s 2012 book The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. The most compelling part of this read is even in the aftermath of trauma, the possibility of living one’s best life remains. Even if that possibility is, at least for now, submerged in faeces, cockroaches, mould, or blood.Support Villainesse