Read February 2018
Recommended for fans of biographies
★ ★ 1/2
Recently, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death was been popping up in discussion, and I had been toying with a re-read until fortuitously offered the chance to read Trauma Cleaners. What perfect serendipity. Don’t you wonder, just a bit, about the secret lives of cleaners? Their tricks for getting out blood? The crazy things they encounter? Sadly, though the blurb makes it sound as if such stories are the focus, the book centers on Sandra, the owner of a trauma cleaning business. As Sandra was born a man and eventually transitioned to a woman, this still had potential for fascinating insight into the process of change, going from dysfunction to disorder. While I think that might have been the theme the author was hoping for, there was too little reflection to make it work.
It begins with an introduction by the author, sharing some of the purpose and challenges in writing this book, but her deep affection for Sandra is clear. It’s followed by a ‘trauma cleaning’ of Kim’s home, an artist and tenant who has let trash, her pet rats and her art get out of control. The story soon transitions to Sandra’s history, beginning in 1950s-60s with Sandra’s parents. They adopted Sandra, born ‘Peter,’ when they were unable to have their own children, although speculation is that Peter may have been the product of an affair. When they had their own biological children, Peter found himself being pushed out the door–literally–to a back shed.
That bank and forth between time frames structures the entire book: a section on a place Sandra is cleaning and the current resident, followed by a chapter in Sandra’s life. The format for Sandra’s history is strictly chronological, beginning with childhood, though the current cleaning project timeline is unclear.
I’ve never been a fan of unreliable narrators, and Sandra is more unreliable than most. It isn’t a personal criticism–with a faulty memory, I’m unreliable in my own way with details–but a storytelling one: how can you tell the story of someone who admits, “Many of the facts of Sandra’s past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality. She is open about the fact that drugs may have impacted her memory … It is also my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced.” The solution, in my mind, would have been relentless fact-checking, research, and interviewing, but instead Krasnostein relies on a combination of often isolated incidents, a couple of interviews, and rather florid storytelling.
“Though the sex work she does and the drugs she takes and her overriding need for constant company frequently mean that she is not in control of herself or her environment, she is excellent at acting otherwise to conceal any vulnerability. So she does not cry in public and, while she might comment in the same tone as one comments on traffic that she is experiencing pain or discomfort, and through, of course, she feels pain deeply, she never actually shows it or make any practical adjustments to accommodate it.”
Krasnostein is prone to making such sweeping statements without any supporting detail or commentary from Sandra showing she believes this.
One of the troubles of this kind of storytelling–like any auto/biography, really–is that in distance, it sometimes becomes easy to judge people. That may be why I prefer autobiographies like An Unquiet Mind, because it is easier for the subject to share their thoughts and perceptions, and thus easier to understand without judgement.
In this case, the writer isn’t able to get very much into Sandra’s head, so much here that would be the meat of the story goes almost unaddressed. Sandra, for instance, fathered children. She currently has no contact with them, and we have very little insight why, although it is clear the writer also wonders. She’s also politically conservative, which seems surprising given her trans background, extensive drug use and history of supporting herself through sex work (all of which were illegal at the time). Again, not really explained. Nor is the simple fact of why she wears ‘pristine white shoes’ and refuses to wear gloves at her cleaning jobs. We’re left with the visual portrait of a presumably complex person: this is how she makes her money, this is how she dresses, these are the things she buys, these are the people she hangs around with. It lacks the larger social context of Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness (with the exception on a chapter that deals with rape), as well as her attention to detail on the transition. (As an aside, I found Sandra’s general dismissal and non-discussion of the process of transitioning to be fascinatingly oblique).
Ultimately, though I eagerly picked it up, it never really paid off for me. The lack of insight into either Sandra or the trauma cleaning case studies/process meant it was unsatisfying on either front. However, it was written engagingly enough that it wasn’t a waste of time or utterly frustrated, just too surface to really engage me emotionally or intellectually. Kind of like watching a segment of ‘Entertainment Tonight,’ or ‘Hoarders’ instead of a thoughtful, in-depth analysis one hopes for from a book.
Many thanks to Will at St. Martin’s Press for an ARC.