SXSW 2022: CLEAN: Finding Dignity Amidst Humanity’s Shit, Piss, & Viscera

Or, The Saintliness of Trauma Cleaning

I found Clean, an Australian documentary about Sandra Pankhurst, founder of successful trauma cleaning business STC Services, to be incredibly emotionally impactful.

Allow me to get personal for a moment. I’ve spent the last seven years working at Community First! Village, a 51 acre community in East Austin that provides permanent supportive housing for people coming out of chronic homelessness. It’s a place of great beauty and hope, providing permanent solutions for settling and belonging to people who have been cast out, become separated from their families, and experienced massive trauma. Amidst all that beauty and belonging that I am honored to witness, there’s also a lot of addiction, mental illness, sickness, and death. The average life expectancy of someone who’s experienced chronic homelessness is under 60 years old. Sometimes my friends and acquaintances are slowly dying. Sometimes they pass suddenly and without warning. And sometimes our community gathers to pray and weep and sing over their bodies as they’re removed from their homes (THEIR HOMES!) and taken to their final place of burial. I’ll forever remember a moment like this when I was watching a dear friend’s body being loaded into a hearse… and I could smell him. How visceral that was. My friend, now a body that is already decomposing, but also a soul now made whole. In that moment our founder Alan Graham reminded me that this was the “bouquet of Christ”. In Alan’s own unique theology, it’s the smell of shit, piss, and viscera… the smell of decay… that reminds us of those whom Christ loved and ministered to the most: the despised, the outcast, the downtrodden, the forgotten. We’ve largely conveniently forgotten this in modern American Christianity.

And it is for this very personal and likely hard to relate to reason that I watched Clean and frankly saw Sandra Pankhurst as somewhat of a Christ figure (I suspect she would have rejected this lens outright, and that’s okay). Sandra’s story is itself an incredible one. Adopted, abandoned, starting a family only to realize she was a threat to her family because she was not well. She soon recognized her trans identity and transitioned from male to female, then entered into drug-fueled prostitution. And then, against all odds, she became a highly successful businesswoman and inspirational public speaker. Sandra stumbled into the unique line of work called “trauma cleaning”, and it changed everything. Going into the homes of hoarders, the homes of murder victims and those who’ve died by suicide, the homes of those who died alone and forgotten, the homes of drug addicts and those so sick their spaces have been reduced to squalor; she simply cleans without judgment. Who is Sandra to judge, after all? She’s seen it all, survived it all, and now she’s running a business teaching a team of dedicated workers how to trudge through rot and brains and rodent feces to change people’s lives and redeem the spaces where trauma has happened. It’s just one of the most powerful symbols of tenacity and hope that I can recall, thanks to a documentary team who was literally willing to go into the worst and most rotten places to tell Sandra’s incredible story.

Shot over the course of several years, largely before the pandemic, and following right through COVID into Sandra’s experience of the pandemic as a person diagnosed with a terminal case of COPD, Clean tells the story of one person’s incredible and inspiring journey, but also bravely reminds us of any number of societal challenges we’ve collectively chosen to skip over and ignore to our detriment. The scenes that the saints of STC Services are cleaning up are the stuff of horror films and nightmares. These people, Sandra’s people, are the unsung heroes who know how to aid the living by stepping into their spaces without any judgment at all and help them to function, as well as salvage spaces where bodies have decayed and leaked into carpet and floorboard alike.

Filmmaker Lachlan McLeod and his team went right into these places with Sandra and her team. They put on all the PPE and shot amidst the rodents and the needles in order to bring us this profoundly human story. It’s vital storytelling and shows the profundity of what the documentary format can do. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who do the work of trauma cleaning the world over, and this world is a better place for Sandra Pankhurst having been here. And while Sandra herself might have dismissed my experience of seeing this former trans addict prostitute as a Christ figure, the legacy of her life, as depicted in this film, speaks for itself.

And I’m Out.

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