Caroline Baum

Heart of dirtness: A literary odyssey into the psyche of a hoarder

In the spectrum of the hoarder, those who cobble books are a special breed. Plus 61J sat down with Sarah Krasnostein, author of The Trauma Cleaner to pick her dirty mind. 

 

 

After reading Sarah Krasnostein’s award-winning The Trauma Cleaner, you may want to take a long bath, soak your clothes in bleach, tidy out the pantry and generally clean up a bit. It is so physically, viscerally evocative of the squalor that its real life heroine scrubs away that it permeates your pores, as well as your psyche.

Styling herself a fourth generation American and a third generation Australian, Krasnostein was born in Virginia and came to Melbourne at the age of 14.

Her grandparents on both sides had Eastern European Jewish origins (Russia on her father’s side, Romania on her mother’s side). Her father, David Krasnostein, is one of Australia’s most successful private equity investors, a director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and of the National Breast Cancer Foundation. About her mother, from whom she is estranged, Krasnostein is tight-lipped.

Growing up with her younger brother Josh, Krasnostein remembers “Friday night dinner was a non-negotiable ritual, but my sense of being Jewish is more cultural than religious. I went to Jewish schools both here and in the US –  liberal here but conservative there – and think that explains how I question most received authority, as well as my strong sense of family, my reverence for literature and my interest in social justice.”

As well as writing, she pursues a parallel academic life, teaching criminal law and procedure at Monash University, specialising in sentencing law.

Until she wrote The Trauma Cleaner, Krasnostein was unfamiliar with hoarding as a condition of mental illness. “I’d watched a US reality TV show about it, which treated hoarders as freaks and had a sanctimonious tone about this kind of behaviour.”

 

Her weakness is books. “That’s different,” she says. “In a fire, the first editions my dad gave me would be what I’d rescue.”

 

“But the fact of the matter is that it happens to people who have fallen through the social net, who have not let family members inside their house for five years, and they can be from any background, including the highly educated and the professional: in some of the cases that I visited, they had the same books on their shelves as I do. They become simply overtaken by situations and are then too ashamed of the problem to ask for help.”

In The Trauma Cleaner, rescue comes in the unlikely persona of Sandra Pankhurst, a truly remarkable character who started life as a male, enduring terrible abuse from his family before changing gender, working as a prostitute in Kalgoorlie and being subjected to yet more abuse, violence and degradation.

After many personal setbacks and failed relationships, Pankhurst transforms herself into an immaculately groomed, white sneaker-wearing businesswoman specialising in cleaning up the most sordid crime scenes and hoarder homes. Maggots, blood and other bodily fluids, piles of festering rubbish, from food containers to newspapers and soiled clothing, litter and clutter her daily workplace.

By the time she’s finished, you could eat off the floor anywhere she’s been (with a little help from Jif, which owes her a free lifetime supply and eternal debt for her endorsement of its effectiveness).

Krasnostein came across Pankhurst at a conference for forensic support services. Little did she realise when she asked if she could interview her about her unusual line of work that she would attend 20 scenes of nightmarish filth. “The meerkat inside you says yes at the idea of going to work with her, until you see it. I dry retched a lot. When I could not take it, Sandra gave me shit,” she says, philosophically.

“(Working from home) means I have to pretend the laundry does not exist,” says Krasnostein who lives in Melbourne with television host Charlie Pickering and their two-year-old son. Pickering, she says, is good at sharing the housework equally: “He is meticulous about the dishwasher, while I tend to leave the lids off things.”

 

“I went to Jewish schools both here and in the US and think that explains how I question most received authority, as well as my strong sense of family, my reverence for literature and my interest in social justice.”

 

She appreciates the irony of immersing herself in the pathology of hoarding at a time when decluttering has become a near spiritual quest. Tidy and neat by nature (at least that’s how her orderly study looks via Skype), she understands the existential appeal of stuff, as well as the counter pull towards a simpler life with fewer possessions.

Her weakness is books, which she exempts from the notion that we have too much of everything. “That’s different, right? That’s a collection,” she says, in her New Yorker accent. “In a fire, the first editions my dad gave me would be what I’d rescue.”

Film rights to the book have been sold to an American company and Krasnostein is hoping to be involved in the adaptation process. Her own screen tastes are not, as you might expect, for the legal dramas. She prefers shows like Six Feet Under, Dexter and Ozark – “something where the texture is dark.”

For her next book, she is researching black Israelites in Brooklyn, where she spends part of every year. “I am fascinated by origin stories,” says Krasnostein, adding that this latest project is prompting her to ask herself where she sits in terms of belief. She is, she says, friends with her rabbi.

Meanwhile, after more than 20 years of writing short stories published in tiny journals and experiencing plenty of rejection, she’s still reeling from having won the major prize of $100,000 at the Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards last month, as well as the $25,000 non-fiction category. You could say she cleaned up.

 

 

This piece was originally published on Plus61J, and was reprinted with permission.

Caroline Baum

Caroline Baum has had a distinguished career as a journalist and broadcaster. In 2016 she contributed to the Rebellious Daughters anthology, and in 2017 she wrote Only: A Singular Memoir. which published by Allen & Unwin.

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