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Format: Audiobook (via BorrowBox)
Content Warnings: Rape, sexual assault, child abuse, homophobia and transphobia, police brutality, murder, death of a loved one, references to suicide and drug addiction
Sarah Krasnostein first meets Sandra Pankhurst at a forensic services conference, where Sandra is promoting her trauma cleaning company. The lives (and deaths) touched by Sandra through her work, from murder victims to obsessive hoarders, immediately make an impression and inspire Krasnostein to learn more.
There is one story, however, that will become the greatest fascination – one that holds all of these other disconnected and diverse lives together. It is the story of the trauma cleaner herself.
First Chapter Impressions
Before I started listening to this audiobook I thought it would focus on the people encountered through Sandra’s trauma cleaning work, but the structure intersperses Sandra’s life with those of her clients.
This structure surprised me to start with but ultimately made the story even more fascinating. Sandra has had a tragic, painful, inspiring life and I found it impossible to tear myself away.
Final Page Reflections
In spite of the often dark content, Krasnostein uses a beautiful writing style. I found it slightly over-written on occasion but at other times a certain sentence would demand that I pause to appreciate it:
“The opposite of trauma is not the absence of trauma. The opposite of trauma is order, proportion. It is everything in its place. It is one long green couch in a sunlit corner, looking like it was built for the space and waiting for you. It is an act of wilful seeing, a conscious choice about perspective.”
The lives of those met in The Trauma Cleaner are strange and alienating, the sort that could easily be turned into exploitative narratives by some hyperbolic documentary on hoarding.
This potential for voyeurism contrasts with Sandra’s relentless compassion. Krasnostein highlights how her funny, warm, positive and straight-talking personality gently draws clients out of their disturbing world while simultaneously inviting in biographer and reader alike.
A word of warning: this book is as traumatic as the title suggests and I found it physically sickening in places, so pay attention to the content warnings above and exercise self-care.
Diversity and Representation
Sandra is a transgender woman and her biography emphasises how this identity is an important part of her life, but never becomes all-consuming. Rather than becoming gratuitous, the depictions of homophobic and transphobic abuse she endures throughout her life are balanced by the joyful process of her transition.
“Hoarding does not discriminate on the basis of income or intellect.”
I also appreciated how the book challenges stereotypes regarding who is affected by hoarding. My mind was opened as I listened to the stories of hoarders who had been normal parents, succeeded professionally, and bought houses in well-off neighbourhoods before their illness became unmanageable.
- Trans rights
- Human connection
- Social justice
Beyond the Book
I rarely read biography as I much prefer memoir – in fact, I thought The Trauma Cleaner was a biography until the preface made it clear that the story is assembled by Krasnostein.
To me, the ethics of writing about others have always seemed slippery. However, Krasnostein is so careful to treat her subject with dignity, describing the book as a ‘love letter’ to Sandra.
1. What are your thoughts on the ethics of writing biographies? Do you prefer to read a biography or memoir?
2. Which of Sandra’s clients particularly touched you with their story?
3. Did you find the lyrical writing style appropriate to the often disturbing content of the book? Or were there moments when you felt a discord between style and content?
“These are the ways we numb the pain of vulnerability, but emotion cannot be selectively numbed. If we are too good at it for too long we will numb our ability to form true connections, with ourselves and with others, which is the only thing we are here for–if we are here, glued to the same crumb busily suspended in infinity, for anything at all.”
~ Sarah Krasnostein, ‘The Trauma Cleaner’
Read if: You’re looking to become fascinated with a brave and compassionate biography.
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Have you read The Trauma Cleaner? Which other biographies or memoirs would you recommend? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!