Efficiently and profitably, Sandra Pankhurst runs Specialized Trauma Cleaning Services in Melbourne, Australia. She leads her crew into the splattered aftermaths of various deaths, criminal and otherwise, and through the homes of hoarders, where her employees dig through walls of garbage while Pankhurst delicately, expertly, respectfully, kindly keeps the homeowners physically and mentally on task.
Sarah Krasnostein's book The Trauma Cleaner tells Pankhurst's story, as well as the stories of her clients, and the story of Peter Collins. Krasnostein spent hours and days and weeks and years with Pankhurst, in interviews and on the job, and spoke with a number of her clients during cleanings as well. "It took me nearly four years from start to finish to research and write this book," the writer and lawyer told Spine. "That involved numerous, ongoing interviews with Sandra so I could get as much detail and depth as possible in terms of her life story, and also observe first-hand patterns and change over time."
Krasnostein studied how Pankhurst carried herself through each day, what she wore, how she acted and reacted, how her words shifted to prod or envelop her clients, moving them forward to a place of temporary order, if not of lasting peace.
Peter Collins proved more elusive. Long before Sandra Pankhurst, Peter Collins was adopted as a small boy by a strict Catholic couple who severely abused and neglected him. Collins struggled to find his path. In his twenties, in the early 1970s, he pushed forward into the rest of his life as a woman — Stacey, Celestial Star, Sandra Pankhurst. Sandra was Peter, but so long ago, in a past muddled and in many cases lost in the wake of trauma and substance abuse, Krasnostein was writing about a person who no long existed. How to fill in this half, this crucial portion of Pankhurst's biography?
Research. Krasnostein conducted "a high volume of original research with people who are, or who had once been, in [Sandra's] life and in governmental records, church records, court records, newspaper archives, local historical archives, LGBTQI archives. That research was vital because of Sandra's memory loss and because this was a work of non-fiction, rather than a memoir or autobiography. Seeking out, and returning to, those primary and secondary sources in order to complete the narrative was part of that duty to readers to be as accurate as possible."
Short version: Krasnostein gathered every fact she could find, a task in which the lawyer and academic in her reveled: "I have a strong preference for triple-verified facts." But when she sat down in the middle of it all, everything she'd gathered from Sandra, through observations, and via multiples forms of research, it didn't fall neatly onto a narrative timeline.
"There were times, as I mention in the book, when I could not make the remembered timeline work. It was like when you try to hang wallpaper, and the edges don't lay flat — they curl up and they keep curling up." Krasnostein had structured the book to flip back and forth between past and present, following two straight-line, chronological paths. She couldn't press flat the curling bits, and finally realized she didn't need to.
"I realized that those disjunctions were not disputing the story, they were a vital part of the story and if I was curious about what they meant, I could learn a lot. So how does trauma affect us, subconsciously or otherwise? What are the benefits and dangers of forgetting? What can we learn when we sit in uncertainty? To some degree, this involved sacrificing what Werner Herzog called 'the truth of accountants,' but I feel like I might have got a deeper insight in return."
In addition to embracing the curled bits of Pankhurst's story, Krasnostein ultimately decided to allow herself a voice within it. Numerous passages not only show Krasnostein participating in Pankhurst's work life, but also offer brief views into Krasnostein's own life.
"I had to make a number of judgement calls in order to piece the material I had into a coherent narrative," Krasnostein said. "My thinking was that if I could use myself as a credible narrative voice to guide the reader, that would help to provide a consistent thread. By being honest about my own experiences, I tried to show the reader the filter through which I was running all the information so that they could make their own judgement calls."
Krasnostein was also ethically motivated to include herself in the story. In the book, she discusses social scientist Dr. Brené Brown and Brown's concept of "excruciating vulnerability, the fact that we form sustaining social connections by being scared to tell our stories, by doing it anyway, and by having them received with empathy.''
"This is what I was asking of Sandra, and of the people who had once played a role in her life, and of the clients who generously spoke with me," she said. "I felt called to ask this, too, of myself."
Susanna Baird serves as Authors editor of Spine. She tackles her own creative writing and client projects from her dining room table in Salem, Massachusetts. When not working words, she helps lead The Clothing Connection, a local nonprofit getting new clothes to kids who need them. Find more of her writing at susannabaird.com, and find her (re)tweeting regularly on Twitter @SusannaBaird.