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Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Book review: The Trauma Cleaner, Sarah Krasnostein (2017)

This biography shows how the abused little boy Peter Collins became the successful businesswoman Sandra Pankhurst and it is structured in convenient slabs of text. The biography of the transgender woman is interspersed with lively vignettes as Krasnostein accompanies Pankhurst on jobs – she is a professional trauma cleaner, many of whose clients have mental illnesses; hoarders and such – and discovers things about her subject that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

There is much dysfunction in society, and Pankhurst in her daily rounds comes across evidence of it in all sorts of places. She works with a team of cleaners to scrape up the shit and the rubbish and the mould and the litter, amid smells and vermin and filth, to make the houses she is contracted to clean better where possible than when they first encountered them.

Pankhurst is her own achievement, furthermore, physically a shadow of her former robust self but nevertheless someone who has endured despite the beatings meted out by her father, the savagery of work in brothels, the rape she survived which led her to look for regular work, and the abortive starts that presaged her success as a self-employed businesswoman.

Krasnostein knots these strands together with workmanlike efficiency and tries to find something of universal relevance at the end when she is called upon in her role as author to tie them up in a memorable bundle that can serve to help others, in some way.

The shortness of the chapters is a relief. You can easily become tired of the remorseless self-referential meanderings of people with evidently compromised intellectual faculties. People who live with mental illness are sometimes difficult to be with, as the author finds. But in Pankhurst, who has a learned knack for dealing with such people empathetically, she alternately finds a rich source for her inquiries, and after many years of work she has produced something that withstands close scrutiny.

If there is a soundtrack that might serve to go with the book surely it must be Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, which appeared in 1980 at the same time that social mores were finally changing along with the law in a way that would allow someone like Pankhurst to eventually live something approximating a normal life. The song’s minimal tonal register has traces in it of the flat-bat irony of Pankhurst’s interjections when confronted by something challenging or unpleasant. The book is subtitled somewhat ironically, ‘One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster.’

Dismissing an affront with a self-deprecating curse, Pankhurst manages to soldier on through thick and thin, and thrive. The book is timely considering the marriage equality debate and next Sunday’s ABC TV documentary, ‘Riot’, about the origins in the late 70s of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The book won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2018.

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