The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay and Disaster
by Sarah Krasnostein (St. Martin’s Press 2018) $26.99; 291 pp.

The woman didn’t seem very old, but it was really hard to tell. She wouldn’t let anyone past her screen door — as if the stench wasn’t enough to keep most people away.

Hoarder situations like that — suicides, undiscovered deaths, accidents — are business-as-usual for Sandra Pankhurst, 60-something owner of Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) in Australia. But as Sarah Krasnostein learned when she befriended her, Pankhurst extends to those clients compassion, and nothing less.

There was ample reason for that. Although many of the questions Krasnostein asked Pankhurst were waved away with claims of disremembering, it’s true that Pankhurst was born a boy, raised as a boy, became a man, married a woman, and fathered two sons. But “Peter,” as Krasnostein pseudonymously calls Pankhurst then, was hiding a part of himself, so, soon after his youngest son’s birth, he left his family to live as a woman.

Though “her reality is as conflicted as it is real,” Pankhurst shared tales of being a sex-worker and a madam. Dates and locales may’ve been incorrect and names forgotten, but it’s also true that Pankhurst eventually fully transitioned and continued to work in the sex industry until she was raped and almost lost her life. She fell in love, fell out of love, fell in love again, married an older man and divorced.

It was because of her ex that Pankhurst founded STC. “As a boss,” says Krasnostein, “Sandra is, variously, mother hen… bad cop… and hanging judge.” Her business cleans up sites affected by hoarding and death, and she’s matter-of-fact about bugs, vermin and smells as her staff hauls away pathogen-soaked furniture while ensuring that next-of-kin are treated with kindness.

As enjoyable as this unique tale is, there are a few things you’ll need to know before you sweep through The Trauma Cleaner. First of all, in her get-to-know-you time, Krasnostein became close friends with her subject, and uses familiarity to gush about her. She’s also exceedingly, perhaps needlessly, explicit in details of a sexual nature while largely ignoring big opportunities for enlightenment on the business side of the book.

And yet, the goodness  — and there’s an industrial-sized dustpan full of it — comes between the lines. This is a biography of cringing, compassion and somebody’s-got-to-do-it resourcefulness, plus irritations, but with a breezy heft of fabrication built in. It’s so singular that it’s almost irresistible; indeed, if you can get past the gushing and the gruesome, The Trauma Cleaner is a book you shouldn’t wait to get your hands on.

— Terri Schlichenmeyer