The stories you read in memoirs and biographies are often the most brave and compelling.
We asked the six authors shortlisted for the 2019 National Biography Award to share the most surprising thing they learnt about themselves or their subjects.
The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster (Text Publishing)
The four years during which I researched and wrote The Trauma Cleaner, my book about the life and work of Sandra Pankhurst, felt like a study in constant surprise.
There was my initial shock at finding out that the Australian trauma cleaning industry existed, and then at the sheer prevalence of the social problems that trauma cleaners like Sandra and her staff strive to ameliorate. This was followed by my surprise that the life Sandra had led was actually even more interesting than her fascinating job.
I was surprised about the number of roles Sandra had inhabited over her lifetime, and what they revealed about hidden aspects of the social history of Australia over the second half of the twentieth century.
Watching Sandra at her work, I was surprised by the sheer power of the past in the present, how she could so beautifully use her own pain at the service of others.
But perhaps my greatest surprise was what I learned from writing about a subject who had experienced traumatic memory loss; the unexpected freight of forgetting in which what could no longer be recalled seemed to affect her more in the present than that which could be more easily remembered.
Though Sandra’s story is singular, this lesson – that trauma can impact in diverse and sometimes conflicting ways, and that the compassion we show others can be the compassion we show ourselves – is a universal one.