The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein

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

Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife. . . But as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home, she just wanted to belong. Now she believes her clients deserve no less. A woman who sleeps among garbage she has not put...

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

  • Text Publishing

    The Trauma Cleaner

    The Trauma Cleaner

    The Trauma Cleaner

    The Trauma Cleaner

    ‘The Trauma Cleaner 

    ‘The Trauma Cleaner 

  • Kate

    This book. Wow.

    Harrowing. Courageous. Repulsive. Compelling. Heartbreaking. Uplifting. Fascinating.

    The Trauma Cleaner, like its star, Sandra Pankhurst, is genre-defying. Author Sarah Krasnostein shadowed Sandra over a number of years, observing her day-to-day activities and recording the story of her life before she was a cleaner. And that story is remarkable – Sandra was a husband and father, drag queen, sex reassignment patient, sex worker, businesswoman, and trophy wife. As a ‘trauma cleaner’

    This book. Wow.

    Harrowing. Courageous. Repulsive. Compelling. Heartbreaking. Uplifting. Fascinating.

    The Trauma Cleaner, like its star, Sandra Pankhurst, is genre-defying. Author Sarah Krasnostein shadowed Sandra over a number of years, observing her day-to-day activities and recording the story of her life before she was a cleaner. And that story is remarkable – Sandra was a husband and father, drag queen, sex reassignment patient, sex worker, businesswoman, and trophy wife. As a ‘trauma cleaner’, Sandra cleans places others dare not go – homicide, suicide and death scenes; meth labs; homes of hoarders; and places ravaged by water, mould and filth.

    It’s very much Sandra’s story but you never lose Krasnostein’s voice in its telling – specifically, her reaction to the messes and squalor Sandra faces every day; her compassion as she relays the trauma in Sandra’s personal life; and her deep admiration for a woman whose resilience is truly remarkable.

    Sandra’s personal story is far more traumatic than the crime scenes she cleans. She was born male and adopted to a family in Footscray, Melbourne. Her adopted father was a violent alcoholic and both parents were physically and emotionally abusive. Sandra (then known as Peter) was forced to live in a shed in the back yard while the rest of the family (his adopted parents and their biological children) lived in the house.

    After leaving home, she met Linda, who she married and had children with. However, being the ‘family man’ was not compatible with her discovery of the gay and trans communities and what followed was life as a drag queen, sex worker and gender reassignment patient.

    What Krasnostein does remarkably well is show how the life of Sandra as she once was intersects with the work she does today. Sandra is commanding but compassionate; she gets the job done yet is gentle with her clients, addressing the pain of people who are broken, alone, and frightened in a practical but caring way – little do her clients know how familiar their neglect and despair is to her.

    In describing the piles of rubbish, the stench of human remains, the feel of walls made soft by mould, and the filthy yellowed mattress of a sex offender, Krasnostein writes simply, elegantly and with an appropriate level of incredulous humour. During a conversation with a hoarder, Krasnostein muses –

    Being aware of the author’s position – one of deep admiration and a little bit of awe; curious but always respectful – throughout Sandra’s story is what sets The Trauma Cleaner apart from your average biography. The result is remarkable.

    4/5 Unforgettable.

    Thank you to Text Publishing (via Goodreads) for my copy of The Trauma Cleaner.

  • Jaclyn Crupi

    I hope I don't need a trauma cleaner in life or in death but if I do I hope I get one like Sandra Pankhurst. This is a unique Australian memoir; one where the author subtly inserts herself into the telling of a life not her own. Sandra is and has been so many things: trans, father, step-mother, husband, drag queen, sex worker, wife, businesswoman. She has experienced horrendous violence and many traumas and she has inflicted trauma on others, namely her wife and children. It can be hard to recon

    I hope I don't need a trauma cleaner in life or in death but if I do I hope I get one like Sandra Pankhurst. This is a unique Australian memoir; one where the author subtly inserts herself into the telling of a life not her own. Sandra is and has been so many things: trans, father, step-mother, husband, drag queen, sex worker, wife, businesswoman. She has experienced horrendous violence and many traumas and she has inflicted trauma on others, namely her wife and children. It can be hard to reconcile but this book beautifully explores the complexity of Sandra's life as well as the lives of some of her trauma cleaning clients.

  • The Captain

    Ahoy there me mateys! Though this log’s focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult, this Captain does have broader reading tastes. So occasionally I will share some novels that I enjoyed that are off the charts (a non sci-fi, fantasy, or young adult novel), as it were. I received this non-fiction eARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. So here be me honest musings . . .

    I discovered this book looking into St. Martin’s Press’ releases because I previously read castle of water which

    Ahoy there me mateys! Though this log’s focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult, this Captain does have broader reading tastes. So occasionally I will share some novels that I enjoyed that are off the charts (a non sci-fi, fantasy, or young adult novel), as it were. I received this non-fiction eARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. So here be me honest musings . . .

    I discovered this book looking into St. Martin’s Press’ releases because I previously read castle of water which was one of me favourite reads of 2017. One of me odd jobs back in the day was helping a company who organized houses. They needed more people to help with a specific hoarder’s house and I needed extra funds so I signed up. To say it was an eye-opening experience into that specific mental illness in an understatement. So what in the world must trauma cleaning be like? I honestly expected this book to have a lighter tone to it like stiff does about the business of dead bodies. I somehow thought it would be funny yet respectful. While the book was extremely respectful and had funny moments, it turned out to be a heart-wrenching tale of one woman, Sandra’s, amazing journey to survive and thrive in life.

    If ye expect this book is going to be about the “trauma” as seemingly indicated in the title, ye might be mistaken. The book does look into “living clients,” the hoarder aspect of the job in particular, using extremely vivid imagery about smells, trash, and the difficulties of getting people to let go of clutter. It does not deal as greatly with the aspects of the job like industrial clean up or murder scenes. Perhaps that it is to help the reader because the author’s turn of phrase, while sometimes lyrical, is so stark and effective at times. But ultimately there is plenty of trauma in dealing with Sandra’s life story. It is seemingly more harsh then cleaning murder scenes. It seems crazy to say that but that’s what it felt like to this reader.

    Ye see Sandra’s life started out rough and it seems like a miracle that she not only survived but became the thoughtful wonderful person found in the pages of this biography. She was born a male in Australia, abandoned as an infant, and then adopted by a Catholic family. This family was no picnic. The father was an abusive alcoholic. The family eventually had more blood-related children after adopting Sandra, which, in combination with the belief that their son might be homosexual, led to a life of hell. Ugh. I won’t get into the rest of the details here. Makes me stomach clench just to think of it. As the blurb states, before she was a trauma cleaner, “Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife.” She was one of the first patients to have gender reassignment surgery in the 1980s.

    It was the portrayal of life as a non-conforming society individual that I found as compelling as I did heart-breaking. While Sandra’s life seems to have had love and joy in it, there also seemed to be a pervading sense of self-doubt, denial, and pain. It is the pain that lingered throughout the tale and made it a hard read. I have amazing respect for the journey and am grateful to have read this book. I highly recommend it but only wish that I had felt more joy in how Sandra’s life ultimately has turned out in the end.

    So lastly . . .

    Thank you St. Martin’s Press!

    Check out me other reviews at

  • Tanyia

    What an unusual and extraordinary life, beautifully told by Krasnostein. Just loved this.

  • Romany

    This book deserves a million stars. To think this incredible woman’s story might have gone untold! And that all the smaller stories of the people who had died and who were burying themselves might also have gone unnoticed... it’s a miracle of a book. It’s also heartbreaking, and a list of all the ways people mistreat each other. But Sandra just shines.

  • Michael Livingston

    A brilliant portrait of an amazing person. Krasnostein stumbled across Sandra Pankhurst, a professional trauma cleaner with an incredible life story and has crafted a thoughtful, moving and sometimes hilarious biography. Chapters alternate between Sandra's life story and snippets of her current life (and the lives of the people that she's cleaning up after). It's a smart structure and Krasnostein is a sympathetic and sensitive biographer - this is a wonderful and original book that will hopefull

    A brilliant portrait of an amazing person. Krasnostein stumbled across Sandra Pankhurst, a professional trauma cleaner with an incredible life story and has crafted a thoughtful, moving and sometimes hilarious biography. Chapters alternate between Sandra's life story and snippets of her current life (and the lives of the people that she's cleaning up after). It's a smart structure and Krasnostein is a sympathetic and sensitive biographer - this is a wonderful and original book that will hopefully be a big success.

  • Marianne

    “And though it must feel like a catacomb in that dark hour, and though every hour behind these blinds has been dark, the house is spinning with movement: mould is travelling up and down the walls, food is rotting, cans are rusting, water is dripping, insects are being born and they are living and dying, Janice’s hair is growing, her heart is beating, she is breathing. Which is to say that this, too, is life. Like the creatures that swim in the perfect blackness of the ocean floor, the ecosystem

    “And though it must feel like a catacomb in that dark hour, and though every hour behind these blinds has been dark, the house is spinning with movement: mould is travelling up and down the walls, food is rotting, cans are rusting, water is dripping, insects are being born and they are living and dying, Janice’s hair is growing, her heart is beating, she is breathing. Which is to say that this, too, is life. Like the creatures that swim in the perfect blackness of the ocean floor, the ecosystem here would be unrecognisable to most people but this, too, is our world.”

    The Trauma Cleaner is the first book by American-born author, lecturer and researcher, Sarah Krasnostein. She first met Sandra Pankhurst, founder of Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services, at a conference. Learning about her tumultuous life happens as Sarah accompanies Sandra and her STC team on cleaning jobs. As well as seeing a side of life to which most of us are not privy, it quickly becomes apparent that Sandra’s own background makes her ideal for this sort of work: “Aside from a vast amount of technical skill that needs constant updating, I ask Sandra what else the work requires. ‘Compassion,’ she replies solemnly. ‘Great compassion, great dignity and a good sense of humour ‘cause you’re gonna need it. And a really god sense of not being able to take the smell in, ‘cause they stink. Putrid.’”

    The situations of the clients in the jobs may also trigger memories that Sandra has lost: “Many of the 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 may have impacted her memory … It is also my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced.” That chaotic past includes a cruelty-filled childhood, two marriages (one as a husband, another as a wife), fathering two sons, a sex-change operation, the death of a lover, a violent rape, a career as a drag queen, prostitute, taxi-cab scheduler, funeral arranger, hardware store owner, Chamber of Commerce President and cleaner.

    With regards hoarders, we learn that dead bodies are preferable to live ones, because no bartering or getting agreement or manipulation is required: the mess and smell are about the same. “…she is completely alone and living in a house full of books and yellowed newspapers and cats and their shit, which for years she has been unable to clean or unwilling to acknowledge so she presses newspaper on top like a layer cake.” Discussing this case later, the author’s father asks ‘What kind of hoarder was she?’ ‘Books and cats, mainly,’ I tell the man who loves his cats and who I know is now actively considering his extensive book collection. ‘What’s the difference between a private library and a book hoarder?’ he wonders. We are both silent before chuckling and answering in unison: ‘Faeces.’ But the difference is this phone call. And others like it I could make. And how strong we are when we are loved.” A fascinating look at life as few of us know it.

    This unsolicited copy received from Text Publishing for an unbiased review.

  • Odette

    I devoured this book in just over a day, feeling very compelled to keep reading. It is the story of the amazing life of Sarah Pankhurst and what she was able to achieve with such a disadvantaged start in life. It also includes little excursions into the lives of the people whose houses she cleans, including hoarders and victims of crime.

    The trauma cleaner gave me much to think about, including the notion of an unreliable narrator. Parts are very explicit, but at the same time deeper meanings and

    I devoured this book in just over a day, feeling very compelled to keep reading. It is the story of the amazing life of Sarah Pankhurst and what she was able to achieve with such a disadvantaged start in life. It also includes little excursions into the lives of the people whose houses she cleans, including hoarders and victims of crime.

    The trauma cleaner gave me much to think about, including the notion of an unreliable narrator. Parts are very explicit, but at the same time deeper meanings and themes surface.

  • Paul Lockman

    My 3 star rating is a little out of whack with the majority of opinions on this book. I think it was an excellent debut novel and Sandra's life and background is certainly very interesting and the author moves skilfully between Sandra's biography and her current work. I suppose the main reason for my low rating is that I just wasn't all that interested in the 'trauma cleaning' she does for a living. While the book didn't have a wow factor for me, please take my review with a grain of salt, there

    My 3 star rating is a little out of whack with the majority of opinions on this book. I think it was an excellent debut novel and Sandra's life and background is certainly very interesting and the author moves skilfully between Sandra's biography and her current work. I suppose the main reason for my low rating is that I just wasn't all that interested in the 'trauma cleaning' she does for a living. While the book didn't have a wow factor for me, please take my review with a grain of salt, there are plenty of people raving about it.

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