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Advice columnist stands on her faith

Amy Dickinson (left) at the Trumansburg Fair in New York with her daughter
Emily in 2006. Dickinson has written a book about raising her daughter as a
single mother with help from family and friends in Freeville, N.Y.
A UMNS photo courtesy of Hyperion Voice.

A UMNS Feature
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Oct. 8, 2009

Amy Dickinson has been blessed with many “incidents” in her life.

All those incidents—good and bad—have led her to be the columnist chosen to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Ann Landers. She was hired by the Chicago Tribune in 2003, and has been writing the daily “Ask Amy” column for the past six years.

Amy Dickinson has been writing the daily “Ask Amy” column for the past six years. A UMNS photo courtesy of Tribune Media Services.


She also is a regular correspondent for National Public Radio, has written a memoir and became a newlywed last August at age 48.

From suddenly becoming a single mother to suddenly becoming a grandmother, from homemaker to syndicated advice columnist, Dickinson has handled life’s ups and downs with wit and grace. She credits her faith, family and a foundation in The United Methodist Church for getting her through.

Being a well-known advice writer hasn’t stopped those highs and lows from happening.

Take for example when she and her new husband learned one of their five daughters was pregnant. Dickinson said she told her husband, “This is like the universe saying, ‘Hey, advice columnist, advice this.’”

‘Queens of Freeville’

She seems to have gotten a lot of those messages over the years. In her book, “The Mighty Queens of Freeville,” she writes about her experiences as a single mother starting with her husband suddenly leaving her alone in London with an 18-month-old daughter.

She often gets the question: “‘Who made you God, Amy?’ this (book) is the answer to how I know what I know; it’s a memoir that covers 18 years of my adult life.”

Dickinson and her family have been members of Freeville United Methodist Church for generations. A UMNS photo courtesy of Freeville UMC.

Raised in a “tiny little town in upstate New York,” Dickinson and her family have been members of Freeville United Methodist Church for generations. It is the church where her grandparents attended and her grandmother was the organist. One of her sisters is the choir director. Her wedding was performed by her cousin, the Rev. Roger Smith, an ordained United Methodist pastor.

Her husband, Bruno Schickel, is a Catholic.

“Roger said he would be honored to give us communion, and I was very moved by that … that it would be the only time that Bruno and I would ever take communion together.

“At our wedding we formed a family choir and sang three grand old United Methodist hymns, and it was so meaningful to me and it was just so incredibly beautiful,” she said.

Those roots in the church have been an important part of her life. One chapter in her book, “Making Peanut Jesus,” is devoted to her long experience as a United Methodist and a Sunday school teacher.

“And it turns out I feel that in many ways this chapter is really the core of the book because in a town like Freeville, a small little village, the church is incredibly important and it’s a real constant for us.”

300 e-mails a day

Unlike Landers, who had a huge staff, Dickinson works alone. She reads all the 200-300 e-mails she gets daily in addition to all letters mailed to her.

“The reason I don’t have an assistant now is different from the reason from the outset. At the outset, I don’t think they wanted to invest in anybody to help me. But that had a really great effect in a way because I had to go through all of the mail by myself and the sort of unforeseen effect of that was that I realize that I choose letters that someone else might not choose.”

Dickinson and her daughter
Emily in Chicago. A UMNS photo courtesy of Hyperion Voice.

She also never rewrites the letters.

“I love the way people write,” she said. “They do so in a way unique to them, often very revealing and this gives me sort of material to bounce off of.”

Almost all the questions she gets are about relationships, whether in the workplace, family or other places.

“I’m fascinated by human behavior and relationships between people,” she said. “I honestly love tackling questions from kids, from teenagers. I love answering parenting questions. I feel that parenting is a field that I have a lot of expertise and firsthand experience with, so I feel most confident tackling parenting stuff.”

She said the most difficult questions are about addiction. “Knowing that response to addiction needs to be very nuanced and that addiction is very resistant to treatment, it’s heartbreaking and you can’t just tell a parent to ditch their kid.”

Because of her lifelong involvement in the church, she loves questions that deal with faith or religion, she said.

“Sometimes my faith means that I am able to recommend that others consider their faith, reconnect with their faith, or connect with faith as a way to sort of dig deep … a way to know their own hearts.”

Blended family

After traveling and working around the world, Dickinson has returned to Freeville with her new blended family that includes five daughters, ages 21 to 13, and a 5-month-old grandbaby.

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One thing she and her husband insist on is a “peaceful home.”

“And if it’s not peaceful, we’re gonna knock some heads together,” she said, laughing. A peaceful home doesn’t mean there’s no conflict, but you start with conversation, she explained.

“I feel strongly about telling the truth, and that doesn’t mean being brutally honest, but it means being truthful,” she said. “Sometimes, you know, the best thing to do when you’re dealing with a family member is to not be brutally honest. And the answer to ‘Does this make me look fat, honey?’ is always no. Sometimes you choose to be kind.”

*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Audio: Amy Dickinson

“My desire was to raise someone in the church and introduce her to God.”

“I feel most confident tackling parenting stuff.”

“We insist on having a peaceful home.”

Profile: Amy Dickinson

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Ask Amy: Chicago Tribune

The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter and the Town That Raised Them

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