Sandra Pankhurst is resilient, generous and kindhearted – but oddly mercurial. She has lived many lives, but – until now – never had the chance to truly tell her remarkable story. Journalist Sarah Krasnostein creates a humane portrait of a woman has somehow found fertile ground in the mess of life. A brutal, heartbreaking and utterly moving story of survival – and a quiet kind of triumph.
Empathising with a traumatised puppeteer as she helps steer her towards a plan to rehabilitate the literal rubble of her life. Scraping away layers upon layers of rubbish, clothing, food scraps – the debris of trauma. Knowing which chemicals will mob up bloodstains. And just how body fluid can “soak through a sofa”. Specialised Trauma Cleaning will take the job. Satisfaction guaranteed. And the proprietor, Sandra Pankhurst, could fill a book with the stories she encounters as she wipes, and bags and cleans.
But it’s Sandra herself whose story we excavate as she cleans up other people’s complicated messes. Sandra – whose nails are always perfect, make up set, outfit immaculate – has remade herself from the trauma of her brutal childhood, early marriage, years of prostitution – and transition from male to female, at a time when being transgender rights were non-existent.
Sarah Krasnostein follows Sandra as she works on homes that have become shrines to neglect, slow death or long-term depression. And in doing so, winds in the details of Sandra’s own life – using the recollections of her subject, and others who have played a role in her life along the way.
The narrative is told in a perpetual present. Whether it is Sandra’s early life as Peter. The boy who desperately craved his family’s love. Or ‘Celestial Star’ the show girl and sex worker with “the big personality”. Or the conservative, business minded effortlessly well-turned out Sandra. Who, not so long ago, thought she would find happiness as trophy wife to an older man. Only to once again remake herself as a self-sufficient business owner, beloved neighbour and hard-working cleaner.
This is an extensively researched, rich, honest and beautifully written biography. Sandra, despite the significant struggles of her life, shows remarkable resilience, humanity and a strong sense of empathy for those on the extreme margins. She is far from perfect. But her story is ultimately one that reveals a kind of everyday heroism all the more extraordinary for its unremarkable setting. Sandra’s story deserved to be told. And this is a story that will haunt the reader well beyond the final pages.