Clean: finding peace and freedom from trauma by helping others deal with theirs

Lachlan McLeod, “Clean” (2022)

As this documentary demonstrates, there’s much more to the word “clean” than first appears. Initially the topic of the film was trauma cleaning and in particular the Melbourne-based company Specialist Trauma Cleaning Services, dedicated to cleaning homes after death (be it suicide, murder or someone dying alone), drug addiction, violence, crime, hoarding or extreme neglect. In following the activities of STCS and its staff, and tracing how STCS came to be, director McLeod found that its motivation was bound up in the life and experiences of its founder / owner Sandra Pankhurst. Pankhurst’s story of how she found her vocation in trauma cleaning, as a way of helping other people deal with traumas in their own lives, unfolds through the documentary: adopted out when young, Pankhurst grew up in an abusive adoptive family who evicted her when she was 17 or 18 years of age. Marrying young and having to cope with two young sons, Pankhurst left her young family and came out as a transgender woman in the 1980s. In that decade she worked as a burlesque dancer and sex worker until a violent rape put an end to that part of her life. In the 1990s she founded a funeral service and then began her own trauma cleaning business. Initially while working on her own, she did not realise she needed to use protective personal equipment while cleaning trauma scenes and this naivety would eventually cost her her long-term health – at the time the documentary was being made, Pankhurst was suffering from emphysema – and her life.

It is no small irony perhaps that in dealing with her own life traumas, Pankhurst finds peace and release by helping others deal with theirs. Her company employs people who have suffered personal traumas and find purpose and peace in helping other vulnerable people and families deal with theirs. The film crew follows a number of employees who clean the home of a man with mental health problems and find syringes in amongst the furniture, and who clean house for clients unable to do their own cleaning. The STCS employees pass no judgement on the homes they clean or on those clients and their families who require their services. Snapshots of staff meetings show how Pankhurst and her senior staff emphasise the importance of compassion and care for those whose homes they clean as well as keeping to strict levels of hygiene and protection while cleaning and maintaining their own mental health.

In dealing with the physically and psychologically stressful situations they find themselves in – having to clean scenes of death, especially of murder and suicide, would be disturbing to anyone let alone people who have to do this work for a living – Pankhurst and her staff draw on their own experiences of trauma to cope and to help others cope, often with unexpected humour. Pankhurst herself comes across as a kind, caring and empathetic yet resilient character in spite of the dreadful experiences she suffered as a child and a young adult. At the same time, even though to survive her abuse must have required considerable psychological strength, she remains somewhat conflicted about personal and family issues, especially issues involving her birth mother (who she searched for and initially wanted to meet) and her sons. Although she is reunited with one of her sons at the time of the death, the film makes quite clear that Pankhurst’s real family in many respects is the people she employs and has employed in STCS.

The film does a fairly good job in covering what STCS does though it doesn’t delve much into the motivations of the company’s employees in working for STCS and how that work benefits them personally. What is it about STCS and trauma cleaning generally that attracts people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go into that type of work? How do people find out about STCS? As much of the film revolves around Pankhurst, moments where she is not present can seem empty and the film seems to slow down and appear a bit lost. Dramatic re-enactments of Pankhurst’s past as an abused child and later drag queen performer are unnecessary and sensationalised. These shortcomings though do not mar an otherwise gentle and sympathetic portrait of a remarkable woman who, in cleaning up other people’s problems and messes, cleans up her own and finds freedom and peace.