There are several types of narrative that currently dominate the biography genre. Their subjects have achieved some level of fame or infamy; their notoriety may derive from pre-existing celebrity, from attaining great success in their field, perhaps even from criminal activity. They are sports stars, musicians, politicians, actors, war heroes, artists, businesspeople (even, increasingly, YouTube stars). Often, their faces are familiar from magazines and newspapers or the evening news. In all these cases, the subject’s significance is already well established before the book is published: readers know the outline of their story, and expect the biography to fill in the details of that sketch.
More rare is a biography of a regular person, whose name and story are entirely unfamiliar to readers. Such books often detail the lives of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations – think of Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, in which Abdulrahman Zeitoun travels via canoe to assist New Orleanians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; or Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, which traces horticulturalist John Laroche’s descent into the obscure but lurid world of orchid poaching. Television series such as Australian Story and podcasts like This American Life serve a similar function, revealing hidden contours in the landscape of ostensible ordinariness.
The relative paucity of books in this vein is partly due to the commercial imperatives of publishing – while first-person memoir and autobiographies allow writers to distil moments of moments of glory and grace in their own lives (indeed, the noughties personal-essay boom fed ravenously off this principle), it’s comparatively rare to encounter a biography of an ordinary person that does the same. To invest in the life of an unknown person is to gamble on uncertain economic returns. As established writers with guaranteed readerships, Eggers and Orlean had access to platforms that offset this risk. An obscure writer, however, is less likely to convince publisher or readers to invest money and time in the biography of a person who is unknown not only to them, but to the wider world. Without that base of existing interest, the biographer faces the mammoth task of rapidly establishing why the reader should care. It is the care with which Sarah Krasnostein addresses these challenges that makes her debut book The Trauma Cleaner (Text Publishing) such an anomalous, indelible treasure.
Born out of a 2014 longform essay, the book’s subject is Sandra Pankhurst, a sixty-something woman from Melbourne’s outer suburbs. If you saw her on the street, you wouldn’t look twice. But her apparent ordinariness is shattered in the book’s opening chapters, revealing a life characterised by compassion and denial, by fierce but largely private battles, by a pervasive, quiet dignity and a commitment to helping those who cannot help themselves. Sandra’s life and work are, in Krasnostein’s words, ‘a catalogue of the ways we die physically and emotionally, and the strength and delicacy needed to lift the things we leave behind’.
Sandra’s company, Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services, enters damaged and degraded places and purges them: houses that squatters have destroyed and abandoned; residences ruined by fire or flood; the scenes of gruesome murders and messy suicides. Her clients are hoarders, addicts, the mentally ill, and the government, with whom she is registered as a licensed crime scene cleaning specialist.
The descriptions of her clients’ environs are visceral slices of lives gone awry: a disused bathtub filled inexplicably with bowling balls; a stairway grown soft and filled with maggots. There’s the woman whose floor is covered in cat faeces, and who places sheets of newspaper on top of each new layer of shit like an endless lasagne; the man who laid down plastic in an attempt to contain the mess before he shot himself in the head (the plastic didn’t work, or Sandra wouldn’t have been called in).
Marilyn, an elderly woman whose grown sons visit her only rarely, embodies the contradictions of many of Sandra’s clients: fiercely independent and intelligent, but also physically and psychologically vulnerable, and living in intense denial. Her predicament is sketched matter-of-factly:
Starting at the front door, the foyer is thickly planted with white plastic bags full of groceries in various states of decomposition. For at least a few weeks, Marilyn has had the physical and mental energy to drive to the supermarket, to select from the shelves, to make small talk with the cashier who arranges someone to help load the bags into her car, to drive home and schlep the bags from her car through her front door. But Marilyn has not had the energy to make the final transfer of the groceries from the foyer to the kitchen. And even if she could have summoned this strength, she wouldn’t have been able to fit anything new into the fridge because it was already full of rotting food which she didn’t have the energy to clean out.
What sort of person does it take to do this work willingly, generously, even joyfully?
Most people would run from the hallway lined with rotting food – and that’s just the first visible sign of Marilyn’s dereliction. But Sandra embeds herself in abject spaces, committing to their inhabitants until the cleaning is complete. What sort of person does it take to do this work willingly, generously, even joyfully?
Sandra suffers trauma-induced memory loss. She was adopted as an infant, and raised in the 1950s and ‘60s by a working-class couple in Melbourne’s west. Assigned male at birth, she was shy and timid, and throughout her childhood was subjected to regular beatings and abuse by her father and chronic neglect from her mother. There are gaping holes in her memories, but Krasnostein pieces together the jagged edges of her life – marrying a woman at nineteen and becoming father to two young boys; her first forays as a drag queen; leaving her family to live as a woman; her time as a sex worker and the often-terrifying abuse she experienced from johns, the police, and men on street; becoming one of the first women in Victoria to undergo gender affirmation surgery. Later comes her self-imposed isolation from the queer and trans communities; her achievement in becoming one of the state’s first female funeral directors; her marriage to an adoring older man; her diagnosis with irremediable lung disease. These markers give a sense of her life’s trajectory, but barely scratch the surface of its nuance and scope.
Crucial to Sandra’s lasting unresolved trauma – and her astonishing capacity to absorb and heal the trauma of others – is the repression of her formative years. As a child, Sandra lacked the language to articulate her gender. Public understanding of gender diversity was nearly nonexistent at the time, and she had no evidence or model for the existence of trans women. When, aged twenty-two, she left her wife and children, it was both an independent choice and one she was inexorably driven to. Asked whether she believes she could have stayed and cared for her kids, Sandra says, ‘It wouldn’t have worked…what would it have done to a child in those days, to be brought up by this queer?’
What has saved Sandra, Krasnostein suggests, is her resilience…her ability to value herself, to know that her happiness and security are worthy.
Sandra came out in, and was shaped by, a stiflingly conservative social milieu in which trans people faced enormous legal, social and cultural barriers. In her twenties, she had close relationships with gay men and other trans women. But later in life, she disconnected entirely from queer communities, viewing ‘her drag days [as] a period of adolescent experimentation from which she felt the need to move on’. She is largely satisfied with this state of affairs, and Krasnostein allows her choices to stand on their own, though she also identifies that the ‘loss of these ties was the loss of a chance for true connection and support’. What has saved Sandra, Krasnostein suggests, is her resilience. Her ability to value herself, to know that her happiness and security are worthy, are skills honed over a lifetime and despite being born into a family and a society that failed her.
As a trauma cleaner, this same resilience powers Sandra through squalid environments and enables her to remain focused on, and sympathetic to, the humans at their core. ‘I have a firm belief that we change the concept of the house from what it was, so that they have in their mind that things are different now. It helps with their process of dealing with the change,’ Sandra says. The essential components of her work, she says, are ‘[g]reat compassion, great dignity and a good sense of humour cause you’re gonna need it. And a really good sense of not being able to take the smell in, cause they stink. Period.’
Guided by these principles, Sandra gently shepherds vulnerable people towards reclaiming their lives, dispensing pop-psychology wisdom that is part Marie Kondo, part Oprah. During one job, a customer asks, ‘[w]hy do you do this? You know what rubbish is’, to which she replies, ‘[b]ecause you see yourself as rubbish. Time to start seeing the good in life. You deserve it.’
For many of Sandra’s elderly and hoarding clients, underlying mental illnesses mean they immediately revert to bad habits and call on her services again within six months. What makes a difference to these people is not so much that they have a clean slate, but the human connection through which it is given to them. Krasnostein writes:
A change in domestic topography is, sometimes, enough to set the interior life of a client on an improved course. Not so much… due to the power exerted by one’s environment – though that, of course, has significant influence – but rather because of the fact that someone cared enough for them to actually do this.
Sandra Pankhurst’s impact on the world has been modest by most conventional measures, but The Trauma Cleaner reveals the extent of her worth. Biographies of supposedly ordinary people are a reminder that everyone matters; even people who are not rich, successful, famous, or infamous; people who have not attained any of the customary markers of vast success; people who are, in short, much like the rest of us. They also remind us that everyday people are perhaps not so ordinary once you dig beneath the surface.
Biographies of supposedly ordinary people are a reminder that everyone matters; even people who are not rich, successful, famous, or infamous.
For much of the book, its author is a largely invisible figure. As time goes by, though, Krasnostein is irrevocably drawn into Sandra’s story, learning about events Pankhurst herself has repressed, forgotten, or is simply unaware of. Ultimately, Krasnostein’s persistent investigations are the catalyst for a momentous reunion that tests the barriers Sandra has erected around her heart and challenges her biographer’s journalistic objectivity. In the book’s final pages, Krasnostein grapples with her own feelings towards Sandra. Her subject refuses to be neatly sympathetic: she is unable to own responsibility where she has created faultlines, or to recognise the pain that results from her repressions.
In acknowledging these tangled feelings of antipathy and anger and refusing to craft a hagiography, Krasnostein does Sandra the honour of allowing her humanity. The Trauma Cleaner is a moment of journalistic ambiguity and moral complexity reminiscent of Helen Garner or Janet Malcolm, which culminates in the writer reckoning with their own feelings, and accepting the impossibility of fully removing themselves from the act of storytelling.
As a biographer, Krasnostein’s acts of generosity mirror those of her subject. For both women this generosity comes in their investment of time, energy and compassion, and their willingness to listen to another person’s pain without passing judgement. Through the disparate vocations of writing and trauma cleaning, they reveal that forgotten, ignored or seemingly ordinary lives are worthy of care and attention. Just as Sandra Pankhurst’s care and attention restores her clients to themselves, Krasnostein allows Sandra’s story room to breathe and expand, to quietly but confidently stake its claim to the reader’s heart.
The Trauma Cleaner is available now at Readings.