The backyard is vast. A Hills hoist is stuck like a cocktail umbrella in the dead centre of the dead lawn; debris everywhere in the spongy yellow grass. Despite it being the end of summer, the bushes and trees along the fence line are devoid of leaves. An entropic mound of trash and broken furniture oozes towards the house from the far corner of the yard. This is where Kim deposited the stuff that was crowded up to the ceiling inside the house during the last inspection. (17)
The author Sarah Krasnostein saw Sandra Pankhurst at a conference for forensic support workers. Sandra was quite eye catching; very tall and blonde and wearing an oxygen mask. But the information on her brochure was equally compelling. As the founder of Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services Pty Ltd, for the last twenty years she has provided cleaning services after every kind of trauma: murder, suicide, unattended deaths, long term property neglect and hoarding. Her brochure contains quite a lot of information about the effects of bodily fluids. They are corrosive, they smell, they cause destruction, but Sandra knows how to deal with them.
The author was so intrigued by this she spent four years following Sandra, attending some of her work sites, but along the way coming to know Sandra’s story, so her book became the story of Sandra’s life as well as her work.
The story is compelling reading on several levels. We can see inside lives that most of us will never be exposed to; the levels of filth, vermin, and decay are unimaginable. Sarah, in the company of Sandra and her workers, visits hoarders who cannot bear to let bags of mouldering rubbish go out of their hands without one more search for ‘something good,’ she climbs through the windows of houses where the doors are barred by piles of rubbish, she lies on a bed jumping with bugs beside an elderly woman with cancer whose alcoholism has caused her to lose her grip on life, she sees faeces flooding the floor from a cistern broken several years before, and she sees Sandra, speaking in a calm respectful way with these touchy clients. She has the knack of getting them to trust her, to not feel judged and to feel that perhaps, next time, they may be able to keep things in order. Her inter personal skills are extraordinary.
On this level we see Sandra operating in the day to day. But there is so much more about her, as Sarah quickly finds, and here the story functions as a history of Sandra’s life.
Sandra was an adopted child in a working-class family and she began her life as Peter. Her adoptive father always hated her and constantly beat her. (He beat his wife too, but she remained loyal to him and shared his hatred of Peter). Peter married Linda at the age of nineteen and had two sons, but he never felt he was living the life that was right for him. The complicated story of his life as a transvestite entertainer, a prostitute, and transexual and married woman is utterly compelling. Many of us old style feminists (I include Germaine Greer and Mary Daly here) had no compassion for men like Peter and saw them as ‘feminized’ women created by doctors. I challenge anyone to read this story and not to feel compassion. It turned a lot of my rusted-on ideas on their head. I still don’t feel that Sandra is blameless in the way she abandoned her wife and children, but her relentless engagement with life in all its aspects is impressive.
This book tells us a great deal about the iniquities of the Australian legal system and the the corruption of the police. It also gives a glimpse into the author’s past and perhaps explains a little about her fascination with Sandra’s work and life. At one point she was abandoned by her mother, she lay in the dark, withdrawn into herself, but unlike Sandra, she had a loving father to help her through
Sarah Krasnostein has written an honest and highly engaging book. She deserves her Premier’s Literary Prize ($125,000) I am glad I read it. But I must issue a warning to those who are upset by filth, physical or metaphorical; this may not be the book for you.