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"I wandered out into the lobby during a break and was absolutely struck by the image of this glamorous woman, tethered to an oxygen tank, advertising her trauma cleaning business."
This is how Sarah Krasnostein discovered Sandra Pankhurst, the subject of her debut biography The Trauma Cleaner. The book explores the life of Pankhurst in her unusual practice of assisting with the cleaning up after the death of a person, but digs deeper into her own complicated backstory as well. From dealing with a violent home environment whilst growing up to deciding to undergo gender reassignment surgery in adulthood after a life as a husband, father, and drag queen (among other things), Pankhurst has dealt with the same amount of personal trauma as she has seen in her clients.
Krasnostein spoke with us about what inspired this interesting book, how its writing process differed from her previous work, and what she hopes for the future of women's stories. Read the complete interview below.
How did you begin writing?
I've been writing my whole life, carrying a notebook around since I was a child, recording dialogue, descriptions, observations. It probably comes from being a fairly obsessive reader.
In addition to writing, you are a lawyer, law lecturer, and researcher. What interested you in becoming involved in this line of work and how does it overlap with your writing?
My doctorate is in sentencing law, and I teach criminal law and procedure. At its heart, the type of law I specialize in is concerned with story — context, character, consequence. So in that sense it's not such a big leap from that to the narrative for its own sake.
You are a third generation Australian. Can you tell us anything interested about the literary scene there compared to what it is like in the states?
I think writers are their own tribe of united introverts wherever you go! But the scene does feel a bit more intimate in Australia, which I love.
You have written a number of essays and academic work for publications but The Trauma Cleaner is your first biography. How did your process differ when taking on this project?
This book involved a subject with large tracts of memory loss. Because her life had left such light traces on any historical record, the secondary sources would often run dry. So despite my professional training — that strong preference for triple verified facts and hard tested evidence — I often was left with gaps in the chronology. Once I stopped being frustrated about those gaps and started being curious about what they might mean, I started to be able to move the narrative forward in a new way. What does it mean to not remember whether you were present at the birth of your child? What does it mean to forget the year of your gender reassignment surgery? These questions opened up the possibilities of using empathic imagination, and it is where a creative process differs from a forensic process — you can explore other types of truth claims.
Photo Credit: Gina Milicia
What inspired The Trauma Cleaner? How did you learn about Sandra Pankhurst?
I met Sandra at a legal conference for court support services for disabled criminal offenders. I was there in my academic role, and a number of the government bodies who contract with Sandra's cleaning business were also there (eg. the police, the correctional department). Sandra attended in order to publicize her business. I wandered out into the lobby during a break and was absolutely struck by the image of this glamorous woman, tethered to an oxygen tank, advertising her trauma cleaning business. I had no idea this industry existed. What do they do? And who was this woman? I had to know more.
In her role as a trauma cleaner, Pankhurst has undoubtedly seen a slew of strange and uncomfortable things. Were there any such situations she discussed with you for the book that you found particularly memorable?
Each of the jobs she told me about, and which I went on with her, were memorable in their own way. The animal hoarders, the man who died in his ceiling while spying on his family, the houses where the garbage had not been taken out in, literally, decades. However, the benefit of seeing these cases over the course of the four years of research was that I learned that there was nothing "other" here — these were simply the human problems of pain and illness and isolation, and they did not discriminate. We are all much closer to those situations than we realize.
A theme of the book in both Pankhurst's life and in her work seems to be a sense of loss leading to reinvention, whether it be cleaning a house to resell or Pankhurst's journey toward gender reassignment surgery. Did you consider this idea at all when you were writing?
Well, I don't believe that gender reassignment surgery can be categorized in that way because I understand it as being related to something much more fundamental, and much less contingent. But with that exception, I think that changing the environment around her was very much a part of Sandra's survival strategy.
Are there certain things you feel a writer should consider before they decide to venture on writing a biography about someone else?
Biography is necessarily different to autobiography or memoir. One of the more important considerations is the balance between the call to write empathetically about the subjects, and accurately and honestly for your readers. I believe that including as much context as possible is one way of meeting that challenge.
What do you think about the future of women's stories being told, particularly traumatic stories coming from unconventional women?
I hope we continue to improve in the quest for published work to truly represent the diversity of life as it is lived.
Rachel A.G. Gilman is the Creator/Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Creature.