The Trauma Cleaner

Content warning: gender identity, trauma, suicide, neglect, abuse, mental illness

The author of this book came to speak at an event in Canberra earlier this year, and although I unfortunately couldn’t make it – I did manage to meet the author later on in the evening. Having heard the premise of this book, I knew it was one I was going to have to read. Then I had the absolute pleasure of seeing her speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.


“The Trauma Cleaner” by Sarah Krasnostein is a biography of transgender Melbourne woman Sandra Pankhurst. A trauma cleaner whose business is in cleaning up humanity’s worst messes from suicides to hoarding situations, Krasnostein’s book explores how Sandra went from a neglected little boy to a successful and resilient woman. Interspersed throughout Sandra’s story are the stories of her clients: sad and lonely people who are being suffocated by their traumas.

Krasnostein writes with a piercing depth that is difficult to encapsulate. She applies an academic rigour to the story, but also manages to reach multiple layers of humanity both in sharing Sandra’s story as well as the story of her clients.  This story is so thoroughly researched yet so honest about where the limits of verifiable fact lie. Sandra is a fascinating person and Krasnostein explores each of her many lives with an exacting sensitivity that demands empathy from the reader. Krasnostein maintains her sense of candour when describing Sandra’s sad upbringing, exiled to the shed by her neglectful and occasionally violent family; her brief stint as a father and husband; the shocking grief of losing her girlfriend; her years working as a sex worker; her years as the wife of a businessman; and, finally, her life as a successful businesswoman.

Having worked in the mental health sector, I thought that Krasnostein did an excellent job navigating the stories of Sandra’s clients. Hoarding is a particularly insidious mental health issue and although it is actually relatively common, it can be difficult for others to relate to. I think one of my favourite parts of the book was when Krasnostein captured Sandra’s finesse and compassion in speaking to these people and asking them to help her help them.

I think the only thing that felt a little jarring was that on a few occasions, Krasnostein goes to some lengths defend Sandra and her choices. However, I think that Sandra’s story really speaks for itself. Sandra’s kindness radiates off the page and the occasions where she made mistakes just make her feel even more relatable.

Anyway, there is absolutely no question why this book won two prizes at the Victorian Premier’s literary awards. It is excellently written and excellently researched, and it tells the story of someone whose story would otherwise never have been told.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

7 responses to “The Trauma Cleaner

  1. Great review. I thought this was a fascinating book too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review Angharad. I agree about Krasnostein working hard at times to defend some of Sandra’s choices, and I liked the fact that sometimes she just put it out there and left it hanging, while focusing on Sandra’s wonderful but clear-headed compassion. An astonishing woman, and a gorgeously written book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sue, I thought it was an incredible book and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her work in future


      • It will be interesting to see what she does. She is a gorgeous writer, but I was wondering the other day where to from here, as this story was one she worked on for years I gather. I wonder if she sees herself as a biographer, or what is her writing interest?


      • Good question! I know she’s a criminologist/academic/lawyer so I’m guessing if she goes for another it’d be non-fiction?


      • Yes, probably. I sometimes wonder though when the first book seems to have come out of a real passion for the topic and has been worked on for a long time, whether the author can do it again usually in much shorter time. I hope she can.


  3. Pingback: Lost the Plot – Episode 26 – Book Disasters | Tinted Edges

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