Cover image for The trauma cleaner : one woman's extraordinary life in the business of death, decay, and disaster / Sarah Krasnostein.
The trauma cleaner : one woman's extraordinary life in the business of death, decay, and disaster / Sarah Krasnostein.
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2018.

Physical Description:
291 pages, 8 unnumbered leaves of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm
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 out for forty years. A man who bled quietly to death in his living room. A woman who lives with rats, random debris and terrified delusion. The still life of a home vacated by accidental overdose. Sarah Krasnostein has watched the extraordinary Sandra Pankhurst bring order and care to these, the living and the dead―and the book she has written is equally extraordinary. Not just the compelling story of a fascinating life among lives of desperation, but an affirmation that, as isolated as we may feel, we are all in this together.
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363.7 KRA Book Adult General Collection

On Order



Winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature, Sarah Krasnostein's The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster is the fascinating biography of one of the people responsible for tidying up homes in the wake of natural--and unnatural--catastrophes and fatalities.

Homicides and suicides, fires and floods, hoarders and addicts. When properties are damaged or neglected, it falls to Sandra Pankhurst, founder of Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty. Ltd. to sift through the ashes or sweep up the mess of a person's life or death. Her clients include law enforcement, real estate agents, executors of deceased estates, and charitable organizations representing victimized, mentally ill, elderly, and physically disabled people. In houses and buildings that have fallen into disrepair, Sandra airs out residents' smells, throws out their weird porn, their photos, their letters, the last traces of their DNA entombed in soaps and toothbrushes.

The remnants and mementoes of these people's lives resonate with Sandra. Before she began professionally cleaning up their traumas, she experienced her own. First, as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home. Then as a husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, and trophy wife. In each role she played, all Sandra wanted to do was belong.

The Trauma Cleaner is the extraordinary true story of an extraordinary person dedicated to making order out of chaos with compassion, revealing the common ground Sandra Pankhurst--and everyone--shares with those struck by tragedy.

Author Notes

Sarah Krasnostein is a writer and lawyer, based in Melbourne, but also works part of the year in New York City. She has a doctorate in criminal law and is a lecturer and researcher. She focuses on the history of crime and punishment, comparative law, sentencing law and criminal justice policy. Her first book is entitled, The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster. It won the 2018 Australian Book Industry Awards, General nonfiction book of the year, the 2018 Victorian Prize for Literature, and the 2018 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Non-Fiction.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Krasnostein, an Australian legal academic, profiles transgender trauma cleaner Sandra Pankhurst in this intriguing but vexing debut biography. Pankhurst runs a small business cleaning homes marred by blood, feces, drugs, mold, and garbage, but her personal history proves more fascinating. Krasnostein explores this history in chapters that alternate with cleaning-site visits. Six of the eight visits feature hoarders or squalor; two are to sites where accidental deaths occurred. Krasnostein details each site with tragic if repetitive effect, but rarely convincingly ties them to Pankhurst's life story. Born male and subsequently adopted and abused, Pankhurst eventually landed a blue-collar job, a wife, a drug addiction, and a prostitution habit, and helped raise two children, whom he abandoned to pursue a sex-change. After undergoing surgery, Pankhurst became a funeral director, married a wealthy husband, lost a business, then started a new one. At times she displays a violent temper, cheats on her spouses, exploits her employees, dismisses other trans people, and neglects her children, leaving them in poverty. Krasnostein downplays the complexity of Pankhurst's existence in favor of a glowing paean laden with cloying therapy-couch clichés and overwrought metaphors ("I listened to Sandra's news like it was the middle of the Han dynasty and she had just returned west from the Silk Road"). A complex protagonist makes for engaging material, but Krasnostein's fawning adulation minimizes and excuses her subject's flaws in favor of creating an inspirational story that never quite rings true. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

HAVE YOU HEARD? They may finally have caught the Golden State Killer, who managed to commit more than 50 rapes and 12 murders between 1976 and 1986, until he just ... stopped. (An ingenious application of forensic science brought him down, but that's another story.) If there's any justice left in the world, that law-enforcement coup should fire up interest in I'LL BE GONE IN THE DARK: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99), the definitive crime study of one of the most elusive offenders to come out of California - or anywhere, really. Sadly, the good news can't reach the author, Michelle McNamara, who died in 2016, leaving an investigative journalist and a researcher to finish this comprehensive and important study of how a killer can elude detection for almost 40 years. The killing didn't start right away. In the beginning, this night stalker restricted himself to raping single women in their bedrooms and limited his activities to the Sacramento area of Northern California. Back then, he wore a homemade mask and was known as the East Area Rapist. After committing as many as 50 sexual assaults, he worked his way down to Santa Barbara and attacked couples. That's when he escalated to murder. Because sections of McNamara's manuscript were pieced together from her notes, there's a disjointed quality to some of the chapters. But the facts remain the facts. In December 1979, the serial rapist transitioned into a killer when he shot Robert Offerman, an osteopathic surgeon, and his girlfriend, Debra Alexandria Manning. How cold could this guy be? After committing the murders, he went into the kitchen and ate their Christmas dinner. Historical murderers lack that modern-day sense of humor. They kill. They bury the bodies. They keep their mouths shut. Take the antiheroine of hells princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men (Little A, $24.95), Harold Schechter's deeply researched and morbidly fascinating chronicle of one of America's most notorious female killers. Standing six feet tall and weighing 280 pounds, Gunness was described by Harper's Weekly as a "fat, heavy-featured woman... with a big head covered with a mop of mud-colored hair, small eyes, huge hands and arms, and a gross body with difficulty supported by feet grotesquely small." Evidently no beauty, this strapping Norwegian immigrant became matrimonially desirable in 1901, when she bought a 48-acre farm outside La Porte, Ind., with insurance money from the suspicious but unchallenged death of her first husband. Questions were raised, then dismissed, when she buried the handsome boarder (a "fine-looking blond Viking of a man") who became her second husband, a relationship that lasted until a heavy metal sausage grinder happened to fall on his head. The list goes on, of hopeful farmhands and would-be suitors who were never seen again after responding to the come-hither ads Gunness ran in Norwegian-language newspapers. You have to say one thing for Gunness - she wrote catchy ad copy: "WANTED: A woman who owns a beautifully located and valuable farm in first-class condition wants a good and reliable man as partner in same." Were it not for the ad's last line - "Some little cash is required" - that siren song would turn any man's head. You'd think that Gunness's lamblike victims, some 20 it was believed, might have been leery of her bluntness. ("Take all your money out of the bank," she directed her swains, "and come as soon as possible.") But as Schechter suggests, America at the turn of the 20th century was a vast unknown land, intimidating to friendless immigrants eager to hear a welcoming voice in their own language. His intention, he tells us, was to focus on Gunness and the atrocious nature of "the butchery she performed on her victims, the desecration of their corpses, hacked to pieces and dumped in the muck of her hog lot." But his greater achievement is to humanize these lonely men - Henry Gurholt, Olaf Lindboe, Christian Hilkven and the rest - excavating their bones from the foul burial pits on Gunness's "murder farm," the last, sad stop on their adventures in a brave new world. Ah, women. What would homicide cases be without the ladies? If they aren't personally committing a murder, like Gunness, they're instigating one. There always seems to be some lovesick chump around to do the actual deed while they're innocently filing their nails. Or, in the case of that little minx Evelyn Nesbit, kicking up her heels on a velvet swing. Reams of print have been lavished on this 16-year-old femme fatale, a chorus girl who figured in a salacious scandal that began in 1901 with an innocent romp in a rich man's playroom (see: Swing, velvet) and ended in a murder trial that transfixed New York society. In the girl on THE VELVET SWING: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (Mulholland, $29), the historian Simon Baatz takes a surprisingly credulous view of Nesbit's role in the murder of her lover, Stanford White, the brilliant New York architect, who nearly went bankrupt designing the original Madison Square Garden. Calling her "naive and impressionable," Baatz absolves Nesbit, by virtue of "her inexperience and her youth," of any complicity in White's death at the hand of her husband, the profligate playboy Harry Thaw. Recreating an imagined conversation between the pair, he notes that "tears welled in her eyes," forcing her to turn away "to wipe away a tear that threatened to roll down her cheek." Poor baby. Unlike those biographers who jump off the gravy train when it runs out of steam, Baatz follows both Nesbit and Thaw past the end of the line, when the scandal of their lives was well behind them. He's sympathetic to Nesbit during her years of drug addiction, and is on her side when Thaw, a millionaire when he died, leaves her no more than a pittance in his will. But by then the thrill is gone, and Baatz's narrative never again rises to the drama of that night in 1906 when, during a performance of a musical turkey called "Mamzelle Champagne," Thaw crept out of his seat at the theater, raised a pistol and fired three shots at Stanford White, killing him on the spot. "Sing, girls, sing!" the panicked stage manager implored the chorus. "For God's sake, sing!" And they did. Does everyone have a murder in the family skeleton closet? Pamela Everett never knew she did, until the night her father broke down in tears and told her a secret about the two sisters he "lost." That horrific tale inspired little SHOES: The Sensational Depression-Era Murders That Became My Family's Secret (Skyhorse, $23.99), about the 1937 rape and murder of 7-year-old Madeline and 9-year-old Melba Marie Everett. "They found their pairs of little shoes lined up in a row," Pamela's father told his daughter, who got the impression that "someone had taken greater care with the shoes than with the bodies." That's the kind of image that sears into your brain (and makes an eye-catching book cover). But despite the cover art and lurid subtitle, Everett doesn't turn a tragedy into a cheap melodrama. The facts of the story are plain and simple and sad. The two young sisters and a little friend were playing in a pretty park across the street from their home in a "lovely" California neighborhood when they were lured away by a man who called himself Eddie the Sailor and promised to take them rabbit hunting. (Each child could have her very own bunny, they were told.) Two days later, a troop of Boy Scouts found their broken bodies at the bottom of a gully. On occasion, Everett lets her imagination run away with her narrative. ("My grandmother is covering her entire face with both hands. I can hear her sobbing. I can see her shoulders heaving. I can hear her muffled cries.... No, no, no. Please God no.") At other times, she's shockingly blunt, reflecting on what jurors assigned to the murder trial had to keep in mind: "nooses pulled tight, bloody clothing, violent sexual attacks, mutilated bodies, the little shoes in a row." For the most part, though, she covers the facts in a sober manner, while looking over her shoulder at "a seemingly simpler and safer time" when people trusted their children to entertain themselves, look after the younger kids, and come home in time to wash faces and hands for supper. In telling this piece of family history, Everett is not simply walking us through social changes since 1937. (But on this subject, when, exactly, did children lose the freedom to play outside without grown-ups watching?) As a professor of criminal justice, she's also keeping track of the technical advances made during the criminal investigation of this case, including one of the first forensic profiles of a sex offender ("Look for one man, probably in his 20 s, a pedophile..."). And as a lawyer for the California Innocence Project, she eventually raises the appalling possibility that the man who was hanged for the murders might have been innocent - a plot twist that in a fictional account might seem histrionic. True-crime authors sure do like to insinuate themselves into their stories, even when the connection is entirely peripheral. Cutter Wood once stayed at a motel that later figured in a 2008 murder case, a slim coincidence that nonetheless led to his thoughtful account of that business. LOVE AND DEATH IN THE SUNSHINE STATE: The Story of a Crime (Algonquin, $26.95) opens with a vivid description not of some criminal atrocity but of a picturesque island in Greater Tampa Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. Drawn to the island, Anna Maria, for a family affair, Wood puts up at a motel owned by Sabine Musil-Buehler, who goes missing some months later, when her motel burns down. "I had the sudden sense, almost like a shock of static electricity, that I needed to know more," he tells us of his impulsive decision to return to Anna Maria to look into this mystery. As seems to be the fashion nowadays, Wood entwines the specifics of the case - including his investigation of the various suspects, among them Sabine's boyfriend, Bill - with episodes in his own life that might not be particularly meaningful for readers. ("She cooked the eggs while I got the toaster off the high shelf," he recalls of those heady early days in a new relationship.) Perhaps that heightened sense of identification is what it takes to interest a writer in the personal history of a stranger. "Ithas notgone unrealized by me," Wood admits, "that as I fumbled so earnestly with the story of Bill and Sabine, I was also undertaking a not unrelated investigation into my own life." Mercifully, whenever he focuses on some aspect of the case that excites him, he drops that affectation and attends to his writing. Here, his fixation is fire. "I absorbed myself in a near-fanatical research into fire," he tells us. During hours spent at the library, he accumulated accounts of "all the best fires," from the Great Fire of London and earlier conflagrations in Rome and Alexandria to the solitary funeral pyre of Jan Hus. The modest fire at Sabine's motel hardly ranks among those epic blazes that moved the author to eloquence. But it does present a focal point for what is, after all, just a sordid little murder in a sad part of town. Blood, guts, body parts, leftover food - who's going to clean up this mess, anyway? Time to call in the pros. That would be Sandra Pankhurst, the subject of Sarah Krasnostein's one-of-akind biography, the trauma CLEANER: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster (St. Martin's, $26.99). Pankhurst, the founder of Specialized Trauma Cleaning Services Pty. Ltd. ("We specialize in the unpleasant tasks that you need to have taken care of"), promises to rid your home of everything from bedbugs to fresh human corpses. "People do not understand about body fluids," Pankhurst notes in the brochure that lists her many mop-up services, including, as she puts it on her business card, "Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes." But she neglects to mention the most valuable of her services - the nonjudgmental respect and compassion she shows to clients living and dead. A typical job for Pankhurst and her crew might be cleaning out the apartment of a reclusive woman named Dorothy who had become a concern to her neighbors. It took six people 12 hours to complete the job, not counting the time needed to take the front door off its hinges to get past the debris. But when Krasnostein asked what the hoarder looks like, Pankhurst said only that "she just looks like an old lady." When pressed on the matter - "Is she unwell?" - Pankhurst replied: "I think she's just lonely." Working for someone who seems as nice as Pankhurst makes trauma cleanup sound like a nice job. But let's make no mistake about the nature of this work. "Trauma cleaning as a career may have a darkly attractive quirkiness," Krasnostein allows, "but the reality is that it is dirty, disturbing, backbreaking physical labor of transcendentally exhausting proportions." Take that into consideration and the work ethic of Pankhurst and her crew seems admirable in the extreme. No matter what horrors they find on a job, they leave the site spick-and-span. If murderers, who are mostly men, were required to clean up after themselves as well as Specialized Trauma Cleaning Services does, the murder rate would drop precipitously. But then Pankhurst and her crew would be out of a job - and we wouldn't want that, would we? Marilyn STASIO writes the Crime column for the Book Review. Pankhurst, the founder of Specialized Trauma deeming Services, promises to rid your home of everything from bedbugs to fresh humem corpses.