Shrink (shrĭngk) vb. Shrank (shrăngk) or shrunk (shrŭngk) past tense vb. Shrunken (shrŭng’kən) adj. 1. to become constricted from heat, moisture, or cold; contract. 2. to become reduced in amount or value; dwindle. 3. to draw back; recoil. 4. to be reluctant to do or say something. 5. the act of shrinking. 6. slang, a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst (American Heritage Dictionary, Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1985).

When asked my profession, I often refer to myself as a ‘shrink.’ I do this for several reasons. First, I am not a fan of people – even accomplished and educated types – taking themselves too seriously. Second, I enjoy others’ reactions to such a self-description; it almost always ‘breaks the ice.’ Finally, in the clinical setting, if I’m with a patient who professes, say, severe depression, and I’m just not certain if the neurovegetative profile supports such a diagnosis, I’ll look for a way to throw into the interview a comment such as this to see how she reacts – while not proof positive, a patient’s response to unexpected humor is very telling re: mental status and degree of social connectedness.

I’ve been using the term for years now, and I wasn’t entirely certain from where it came. So I thought I’d share with my readers what I’ve since learned.

Apparently the term has not been in common usage for very long. The first reference to a ‘headshrinker’ that I can find comes from 1926, and at that point referred not to psychiatrists, but rather to members of the Jivaro tribe in deep Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazonia who collected the severed heads of enemies killed in battle as trophies, called tsantsas. The public’s fascination with these macabre tchotchkes was fanned by 1939’s Five Came Back, its later remake entitled Back From Eternity, and 1954’s Jivaro, all Hollywood’s attempts to portray the bad ends that might befall someone who became lost in the Amazon and fell into the clutches of these savages.

It didn’t take long before this term for South American primitives was extrapolated to my professional brethren as ‘headshrinker,’ and then just ‘shrink.’ There’s no agreement as to why ‘shrink’ was attached to psychiatry per se. I suppose that it was a form of gallows humor at a time rife with latent suspicion toward mental health and ‘getting inside your head’ in general, and during which seeing a psychiatrist remained a dirty little secret.

This earliest found print usage of this secondary meaning dates only from 1950; in an article in Time in November of that year, an editor added a footnote explaining that ‘headshrinker’ was a term used in Hollywood for a decade or more to denote a person’s psychiatrist. The moniker was then used in James Dean’s opus, Rebel Without A Cause, in 1955, and in Time For The Stars, in 1956. By the time the label turned up in Broadway’s West Side Story in 1957 and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in 1965, it had apparently entered the general lexicon, where it remains to this day as a term for a mental health caregiver that is almost universally understood if not employed.

But what of the original headshrinkers?

The Jivaro, to my knowledge, are the only native people of the New World who successfully resisted all attempts by the Spanish colonial empire to seize control of their lands. Not only that, but they had earlier repulsed the mighty Incan empire from the south. More than one hapless ‘governor’ who was appointed on paper to rule over the Jivaro met grisly ends: having molten gold poured down the throat was one such form of execution for non-combatants.

In no small part, the fear of having molten gold poured down your throat (or of becoming a tsantsa if you were a combatant) might have kept more than a few outside interlopers at bay.

Immediately after a battle, the heads of the fallen enemy were collected by Jivaro warriors. No matter how thoroughly the enemy had been vanquished, a Jivaro community would consider the victory incomplete unless heads were brought back from which tsantsa could be created to serve as centerpieces at the subsequent celebratory banquets.

Tsantsa (courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, UK)

Tsantsa (courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, UK)

Tsantsa were felt to embody magical powers. It was believed that the creation of a tsantsa locked the enemy’s spirit within the new trophy, preventing that spirit from escaping and exacting revenge, as well as imparting to its new owners the strength of the fallen enemy.

Oddly, it wasn’t always necessary to have an actual human head to make a tsantsa, though this was preferred. In those cases in which heads couldn’t be severed and spirited away before the enemy counterattacked, substitute heads – from sloths, monkey, or goats – would be taken back to the village, and they apparently worked just as well. Even gourds would suffice if some of the fallen enemy’s hair could be attached to this vegetable ‘scalp’ during preparation.

And equally oddly, once the tsantsa was made and celebrated, it wasn’t necessary to even keep it. Many of these trophies were casually discarded or given away.

And this is how they came to the attention of white traders.

As Europeans made gradual and cautious inroads on the borders of Jivaro lands in the 19th century, they saw their first tsantsa and decided they would make interesting souvenirs. The Jivaro weren’t all that attached to the tsantsa, and were happy to trade them to the whites – for firearms with which to kill their enemies more efficiently. Local governments soon realized that the tourist trade in tsantsa was only encouraging the natives to kill each other for raw materials. Thus, laws were passed in South America prior to WWII imposing stiff penalties on the sale or trade of tsantsa, and other countries – the U.S. and U.K. amongst them – banned their importation.

A final word in case you might sometime need bling for your own dinner party: how does one even make a tsantsa? It requires about three days, so plan ahead. Take the head, make an incision from the base of the skull over the occiput, and peel the skin off the skull, which is then removed along with the brain. The skin is soaked in hot water (not boiling yet) to make it pliable and to loosen remaining fat and connective tissue, which is then scraped off. The skin is then placed over a smaller wooden object, similar to a milliner’s block, to help it keep its shape. The top of the head is pierced to allow for the later addition of a suspension cord, and the incision in the back is stitched up. The eyelids are sewn shut with coarse cotton string, and the mouth is likewise sealed with pins made from chonta palm. The head is then boiled in water infused with special herbs, spices, and tannins; each boiling requires a slightly smaller wooden block be used so that the skin can wither but retain its general morphology as it reduces in size. Then, after the series of boilings, the head is packed with hot rocks and sand for further desiccation. Finally, the work product, now the size of a large man’s clenched fist, is coated with charcoal ash (to seal the spirit inside). Add a suspension cord and decorative beads and feathers, and you’re good to go!

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