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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Trauma Cleaner

One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster

Sarah Krasnostein

St. Martin's Press



This is what it says on the back of Sandra Pankhurst’s business card:

Excellence Is No Accident

Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Cleanup * Squalor/Trashed

Properties * Preparing the Home for

Home-Help Agencies to Attend * Odor Control *

Homicide, Suicide, and Death Scenes *

Deceased Estates * Mold, Flood, and Fire

Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Cleanup *

Industrial Accidents * Cell Cleaning

I first saw Sandra at a conference for forensic support services. A gaggle of public servants, lawyers, and academics had just emerged from a session on offenders with acquired brain injuries to descend on urns of crappy coffee and plates of sweating cheese. I passed a card table in the lobby, where brochures were spread out next to a sign inviting you to drop your business card into an ice bucket for a chance to win a bottle of shiraz. Next to the ice bucket—silver, with a stag’s head on either side—a tiny TV played scenes of before and after trauma-cleaning jobs (which brought to mind the words feces and explosion).

Sitting behind the table, a very tall woman, perfectly coiffed and tethered to an oxygen tank, fanned her hand out and invited me to enter my card. Hypnotized by her smile and her large blue eyes and the oxygen mask she wore like jewelry and the images on her TV, I haltingly explained that I don’t have business cards. I did, however, pick up one of her brochures, which I read compulsively for the remainder of the day.

Sandra is the founder of Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty. Ltd. Each day for the past twenty years, her job has led her into dark homes where death, sickness, and madness have suddenly abbreviated the lives inside.

Most people will never turn their minds to the notion of trauma cleaning, but once they realize that it exists—that it obviously has to—they will probably be surprised to learn that the police do not do trauma cleanup. Neither do firefighters or ambulances or other emergency services. This is why Sandra’s trauma work is varied and includes crime scenes, floods, and fires. In addition, government housing and mental health agencies, real estate agents, community organizations, executors of deceased estates, and private individuals all call on Sandra to deal with unattended deaths, suicides, or cases of long-term property neglect where homes have, in her words, “fallen into disrepute” due to the occupier’s mental illness, aging, or physical disability. Grieving families also hire Sandra to help them sort, disperse, and dispose of their loved ones’ belongings.

Her work, in short, is a catalog of the ways we die physically and emotionally, and the strength and delicacy needed to lift the things we leave behind.

We specialize in the unpleasant tasks that you need to have taken care of. Performing a public service as vital as it is gruesome, Sandra is one of the world’s unofficial experts on the living aspects of death. So much is clear from her brochure, which also showcases her intense practicality. Quoth the Brochure of Pankhurst:

People do not understand about body fluids. Body fluids are like acids. They have all the same enzymes that break down our food. When these powerful enzymes come into contact with furnishings and the like, deterioration is rapid. I have known enzymes to soak through a sofa and to eat at the springs, mold growing throughout a piece of furniture, and I have witnessed the rapid deterioration of a contaminated mattress.

Most of us will never realize how many of these places there are or that they can be found in every neighborhood, regardless of socioeconomics. We will never see them or smell them or touch them. We will not know these places or lament them. But this is the milieu in which Sandra spends much of her time; it is where she works and takes phone calls and sends emails, where she laughs and makes the office small talk most of the rest of us roll out in the office elevator; it is where she passed into early and then late middle age.

STC Services have the compassion to deal with the residents, a very underestimated and valued requirement by its customers. Her advertising materials emphasize compassion, but that goes far deeper than the emotional-intelligence equivalent of her technical skill in neutralizing blood-borne pathogens. Sandra knows her clients as well as they know themselves; she airs out their smells, throws out their weird porn, their photos, their letters, the last traces of their DNA entombed in soaps and toothbrushes. She does not, however, erase these people. She couldn’t. She has experienced their same sorrows.

* * *

“Hi, Sarah, it’s Sandra. I believe you contacted me for an interview. If you could call me back on [number] it would be appreciated, but possibly not today, as I’m just inundated at the moment and I’m on my way to a suicide. So if you could just call me back tomorrow, maybe, on [number], thank you. Bye for now.”

When I return her call, I learn that Sandra has a warm laugh and that she needs a lung transplant. She asks me when I would like to meet. I tell her that I can work around her schedule. So she says, “Okeydokey,” and flips open her diary. “How about the café at the Alfred Hospital?” she suggests, explaining parenthetically that she has a couple of hours next week before she sees her lung specialist. It struck me then that, for Sandra Pankhurst, death and sickness are a part of life. Not in a Buddhist koan sort of way but in a voice mail and lunch-meeting sort of way. Over the next few years, she would reveal to me how this unrelenting forward orientation, fundamental to her character, has saved her life.

During my time with Sandra, I met a bookbinder, a sex offender, a puppeteer, a cookbook hoarder, a cat hoarder, a wood hoarder, and a silent woman whose home was unfit for her many rabbits and whose skin was so swollen that I thought at any moment it would burst like a water balloon. I heard Sandra bend and flex language into words and idioms she made her own: supposably, sposmatically, hands down pat! I had the rapturous experience, many times, of simply listening to her swear. I saw wonders of the dark world, as true of our collective human life as radio stations and birthday cards: walls that had turned soft from mold, food that had liquefied, drinks that had solidified, flies raised on human blood, the pink soap of the recently deceased and eighteen-year-old chicken bones lying like runes at the bottom of a pot.

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, except that she was really just telling me about her morning or her afternoon—about waiting for the psych team to collect the man who killed his dog so that she could clean its blood off his floors; about a “love triangle stabbing;” about the man who died in the ceiling of his home while spying on his family; about the dead hermit eaten by his dog; about the 240-liter container of syringes she filled and removed from a drug house; about the man who threw himself on a table saw and the mess he left for his family to find.

I learned the many sides of Sandra: the social commentator (“We’ve some areas where no life skills are taught; we are getting generation after generation that are slovenly”); the bawdy (“I’ve had more cock than I’ve had hot dinners”); the confident (“If I had better health, I’d run for government and I’d be a kick-ass person”); the self-compassionate (“I have no shame of what I had to do to get to where I needed to go”); the philosophical (“Everything happens for a reason, and it’s really hard to say why it happens at the time”); the perfectionist (“I’ve always set tough standards. As a prostitute, I was a great prostitute. As a cleaner, I’m a great cleaner. Whatever I do, I do to the best of my ability.”); and the positive (“This year is going to be my best year ever”).

Which is all to say, I learned that Sandra is at once exactly like you or me or anyone we know, and at the same time, she is utterly peerless.

One thing Sandra is not, however, is a flawlessly reliable narrator. She is in her early sixties and simply not old enough for that to be the reason why she is so bad with the basic sequence of her life, particularly her early life. Many facts of Sandra’s past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting, or loosely tethered to reality. She is open about the fact that drugs have impacted her memory (“I don’t know, I can’t remember. The lesson to be learned is this: Do not take drugs; it fucks your brain.”). It is also my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced.

But there is something else of which I have become convinced over my years of speaking with her. Most people Sandra’s age can tell you in detail about how they came up, about the excitements and tragedies of being a young adult out in the world for the first time. This isn’t because their brains are any better than Sandra’s or because they did less drugs or drank less or had kinder childhoods. It is because they’ve told their stories more often. Because they were consistently surrounded by friends or parents or partners or children who were interested in seeing them as a whole person.

This is how true connection occurs. This is how events become stories and stories become memories and memories become narratives of self and of family from which we derive identity and strength. Part of the reason the time line is never clear for Sandra, no matter how many times we go over it, is that, until now, she has never had any reason to repeat it honestly or in full.

“A lot of people know some of the story, but they do not know all of the story.” And here it hits me what it is we are doing by telling this story. It is something at once utterly familiar and completely alien to Sandra: we are clearing away the clutter of her life out of basic respect for the inherent value of the person beneath.

Using words as disinfectants, we are trauma cleaning. Word by word, sentence by sentence, we are reuniting fragments scattered by chaos to create heat and light. We cannot always eliminate what is bad or broken or lost, but we can do our best to put everything in its place, such Order being the true opposite of Trauma.

And so your story is imperfect, Sandra, but it is here, made complete, and it is my love letter to you.

Copyright © 2017 by Sarah Krasnostein