What do we gain from starting over again? What do we lose? How do we hold onto what is vital in clearing away the bits of our life that are blocking us, how do we become new without having big swathes of us erased by loss?
Sarah Krasnostein explores these questions in “The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster,” a poetic and compassionate attempt to reconstruct the story of Sandra Pankhurst, a woman whose story weaves between possibilities, genders and traumas.
Sandra is a wounded healer, a businesswoman who takes charge of cleaning the physical damage that comes from the inner damage which humans carry, someone who uses her hard won skills in surviving & thriving to help others.
Krasnostein is in awe of the healing gifts that Sandra offers, but understands that power comes from the requirement to transcend extraordinary & profound wounds, facing a lifetime of loss while holding onto the humanity needed to claim respect and presence in the face of massive indignity.
No two trans lives are ever the same, just as no two people are ever the same, but the tender heart and sharp brain that Krasnostein uses to pick through the shards of Sandra’s life is one of the most compelling and insightful exposure into the twists of trans lives that I have ever read, especially for someone who hasn’t lived on the bent path themselves.
This is the gift that Krasnostein gives Sandra, the gift she gives all her readers, the surfacing of a complex and very human life beyond the facade of acrylic nails and strong, sweet service. How can we tell our own story to a world that wants to smooth out the queer bits, wants to erase the cost of claiming beyond? How can we own our narrative if we can never speak it, if we always have to clean it up and out to just be accepted in the everyday world?
The artifacts Krasnostein excavates from Sandra’s life create a museum of contrasts, from free-flowing fun to brutal rape, from beautiful rooms to placards of denial & separation. Krasnostein is clear that the bits challenge her, but understands that they can’t be judged individually, that without the context of an extraordinary life any assigned value is as shallow as the myopia that so many used in moments to castigate Sandra.
No one comes out unscarred. No one can be forced to carry the weight of all the judgments and shaming they have endured through the years, be held down by blaming them for what they did to survive, struggling to get beyond the shattering residue of trauma, separation, disconnection, abuse and loneliness. We are those wounds, yes, those broken moments in our lives, but we are also that healing, the way that we have turned and blossomed even in the face of disasters.
There are very few cuts & twists of a trans life, of a human life, that go untouched in Krasnostein’s masterly work. That alone makes it worthy of study, of going back to explore knots and scars, letting us ponder and rehearse choices we could make differently. None of those touched moments, though, are revealed without compassion for the needs that Sandra had in any moment, from moving away from those who loved her to putting up a facade that shielded her from the rejection a deep part of her had come to expect.
“The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster,” is a book where trauma is laced with brilliance, where wounds are transcended by healing, and where darkness is overwhelmed with light. These are, in the end, the lessons of Sandra’s relentless work to make as beautiful a life as possible, being of service and rising above all that could have sunk her.
Ms. Krasnostein has created a powerful, stimulating and delightful work, taking the best of Sandra Pankhurst and tempering it with wonder, wit and reverence.
If you care about any single thing I have written about in the past twelve years of this blog, you should read “The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster” and meet these two amazing women.