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The Open Book of My Life

“We do not need to proselytise either by our speech or by our writing. We can only do so really with our lives. Let our lives be open books for all to study.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak to graduate students of Brigham Young University’s business school who were studying fraud and ethics. The professor who invited me asked me to share my story and my thoughts on how fraud happens and how good people can get caught up in it. I’ve written about my experience quite a bit, I’ve spoken about it to various audiences quite a lot, but it was a different experience to ponder what to say when my life was an open book for all to study in an academic setting!

Here are some highlights from what I shared. I began by introducing myself with Part One of the 2010 Colorado 9News story by Cheryl Preheim. Then I said, “Well, there you have it. That’s me. I’m Andrea Merriman and I’m here today to talk about what it’s like after almost 20 years of marriage, four children, and what I thought was a wonderful life of world travel, financial prosperity, community and church service to have my life and my world collapse in one unexpected moment, the result of something I never EVER imagined would be a part of my life: FRAUD.

It was the worst nightmare I could never have imagined, only unfortunately, it was very real and sadly, it was now my life. You could title it:

Hold On—I’ve Never Smoked, Tasted Alcohol, Tried Drugs or Cheated in School, This Can’t Be Happening To Me!

No Way! I’m A Cougar Club Member and Have $10 Million In The Bank, I Can’t Be Penniless

I’ve Never Stolen A Thing In my Life, Not Even A Grape From the Grocery Store Without Paying For It

But the reality is titled more like this:

Think and Grow Rich…With A Ponzi Scheme

How To Win Friends and Influence People…Then Spend The Best Years of Your Life Behind Bars

What To Expect When You’re Expecting…5-7 Years and Get More Than The Max

Gone With The Wind…And The U.S. Marshalls

Crime and Punishment

From BYU to Federal Prison in 16 “Easy” Years

In truth, however, it’s much worse. You lose every material thing in your life, you lose the immaterial things like your good name and reputation, your wife, your children, your family and your friends, and then on top of that, you lose your entire life and your freedom, as well.

So what does all of this have to do with you? You may be sitting comfortably in your seats knowing you’re eagle scouts, you practice your religion, you’re at BYU living the honor code… something like this could never happen to you. Twenty-two years ago, I was just like you.

So how does this happen? How did a decent man fall so far? How did he do what he did to himself, to me, to his children, to his family, and to his victims?

I was interviewed by the MSNBC show, ‘American Greed’ recently and they asked basically the same question: How does a Ponzi scheme take place? How does a person get caught up in fraud that results in crime? How does it happen?

My answer?

One component of fraud is fear—fear of failure, fear of having to tell others you’ve failed, fear of losing your reputation for success by failing at something, fear of loss of job…But I also believe that selfishness, greed and pride are at the heart of it. You can’t commit fraud without them.

I also don’t believe every criminal sets out with the intent to commit a crime. I think there are good people who make a mistake, try to ‘fix it’ and fail and then choose to cover it up as they continue to work to fix it, but it’s too late. The MOMENT you ignore a mistake or attempt to disguise or try to hide even a small error is the moment your fraud begins.

Dieter Uchtdorf taught ‘Small Errors Can Have a Large Impact on Our Lives.’ He related it to airplanes and flight, but I believe it has application in business as well. He said, ‘The difference of a few degrees may seem minor. But even small errors over time can make a dramatic difference.  Suppose you were to take off from an airport at the equator, intending to circumnavigate the globe, but your course was off by just one degree. By the time you returned to the same longitude, how far off course would you be? A few miles? A hundred miles? An error of only one degree would put you almost 500 miles off course. Guard against the many little rationalizations, little white lies, misleading statements that are true but maybe not the whole truth, and courageously stay the ethical course.’

Stay on the straight and narrow path professionally and personally. (By the way, I believe ‘narrow path’ is no exaggeration.) It’s a narrow path, and when you start rationalizing and messing with the boundaries of it, you’re quickly into the gray and questionable area. And when you step off the clearly defined track of righteousness, it’s a very slippery and surprisingly short fall to the mists of darkness and impropriety.

In addition to correcting your course immediately and frequently, keep your heart in the right place. Lock your heart against things with no eternal value. Do whatever you need to do to keep your heart and your priorities in the right place in the workplace and in your professional endeavors. It can be pretty heady to go from college poverty making $4.90/hour (what I made when I was at BYU) to after graduation making $18k/month—I know, because that was my experience; that’s what my former husband made as an investment banker right out of college in the days when he was a law abiding citizen, prior to creating his Ponzi scheme.

Check your greed. Because at some point, close to $20k/month wasn’t enough. He had to have more and more and more until he sold out his wife, his children and his soul for money. Don’t make that mistake.

How do you prevent a fall like the one that destroyed my ex-husband? I think Mosiah (in the Book of Mormon) said it best: “But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves and your thoughts and your words and your deeds and observe the commandments of God and continue in the faith of what ye have heard…even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember and perish not.”

I apologize for the seriousness of my comments today, but I not only feel very strongly about the importance of living a life of integrity, I’ve lived through the nightmare that results when a person fails to do that professionally. So here’s my last bit of advice, courtesy of Benjamin Franklin, before you depart, as many of you graduate and go forth not only to serve but to establish your career, demonstrate to the world of business what you’ve been taught, what Brigham Young University is about and what you stand for:

‘Let no pleasure tempt thee, no profit allure thee, no persuasion move thee, to do anything which thou knowest to be evil; so shalt thou always live jollity; for a good conscience is a continual Christmas.’

Your career and the rest of your life will be what you make of it—make them ethical, keep them fraud free and make sure every workday is, as Benjamin Franklin advised, a continual Christmas through your hard work and ethical business decisions. Thank you for letting me share a little bit of my story with you today. My best wishes and good luck to you all in your futures.”

There was a brief question and answer session afterward. As I drove home after it, I was struck by the thought that again, another unexpected experience has been mine. Had anyone told me in March 2009 when my world ended in a moment that three years later I’d not only be blogging about my unexpected life but also speaking to various groups and organizations about it, including Brigham Young University, I would NEVER have believed them!

Life is great, isn’t it? Hard, but full of amazing experiences. Never forget that wonderful blessings and moments are born of adversity, even from those challenges you can’t comprehend surviving much less enduring. I met some great people that day of my BYU speech—sharp college students with their futures ahead of them, children of friends and blog readers from Colorado, a successful businessman, BYU professor Mark Zimbelman and his cute teenage daughter.

Prior to my speech, the businessman asked me if I was nervous or if it was difficult to speak about my experience. No, it isn’t difficult. But here’s what apparently is: ”There are two things that are more difficult than making an after-dinner speech: climbing a wall which is leaning toward you and kissing a girl who is leaning away from you.” (Winston Churchill)

My Children’s News Story

I realized, last night, why I had kids.

“I brought children into this dark world because it needed the light that only a child can bring.” (Liz Armbruster)

Of course that isn’t the only reason, but last night’s news story featuring my teens showed me that isn’t a bad one! They sat and talked with Cheryl Preheim, of the NBC affiliate Channel 9 in Denver, CO, and shared their experiences and things they’ve learned as a result of their unexpected life–and I couldn’t be more grateful for what they’ve gleaned.

Click here to see their news story.

“From out of the mouth of babes.” They’re not babies anymore, but I’m so glad they’re mine.

And although I’m not going to be here, forever, sharing the life lessons I’ve learned about living, what is truly important, and what you do with the unexpected things that happen…thank goodness they might be.

“Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” (Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood(introduction), 1982)

My News Story

It’s official.

The “exciting” event I foreshadowed in a blog last month actually became an “exciting” event for my middle son yesterday–he got to see himself on t.v.!

Cheryl Preheim, a news personality on NBC affiliate Channel 9 in Denver, CO, did a story on our family’s experience which aired, for the first time, last night.

Click here to see the news story.

But to keep it all in perspective, I’m reminded of some wisdom Abe Lincoln shared, “What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.”

Just don’t call me Flower.

In Charge

The day we met Cheryl Preheim we spent time in our home and in the canyon not far from our home. Eventually, I had to leave the canyon and take my middle son to football practice.

Cheryl asked, “How about if your older two children stay here with Ken and I, we’ll talk to them alone and take them home when we’re done?”

I hadn’t expected that, for some reason. I hadn’t prepared myself, or them, for that experience. I have amazing children, but still, it’s kind of huge to leave your teens alone, in front of a camera that’s recording–who knows what they’ll say? But in life, especially the unexpected one, you’ve got to improvise. I’ve flown by the seat of my pants a lot since March 18, 2009. So I drove away.

When we were back at my home, Cheryl caught me alone and said, “I have to tell you about our interview.”

I died inside.

I sort of panicked. And I’m ashamed to say, I imagined the worst.

“What?” I asked. “They didn’t argue or fight did they? They weren’t rude, were they?” That would be just my luck to display, not for the first time (please see 2009′s media reports on Shawn Merriman and the revelation of his Ponzi scheme if you don’t know what I’m talking about!) the finest aspects of our character, our finest moments, publicly, in the media.

Cheryl laughed and said, “Don’t worry! Your children are amazing. I just sat and heard your teenage son tell me life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% what you do with it. I can’t believe it.” She shared something inspiring my daughter had said, as well, and the mother in me calmed down.

Instead, it was one of those parent paydays. You parents out there know what those are. You love, labor to teach, serve, and expend your energies helping your children grow and develop and learn all they need to…and you don’t always see the fruits of your efforts right away. But if you’re lucky, every now and then, you get glimpses of the amazing adults they’re on track to become. It reminds you how worth it all is, how much fun it has all been. That’s how that day turned out for me.

Coincidentally, the thought about attitude my son referenced is part of a quote Cheryl had heard before. She loved it so much she carried it with her. And she left that thought, in the form of a fridge magnet, for us when she left. Here it is:

“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our Attitudes.” (Charles R. Swindoll)

Thanks, Cheryl. (And Charles.)

I believe the only way you’re going to get through life and rise above your challenges is to take charge–and keep a good attitude. It is something I’ve come to realize the longer I’VE lived. And when you can’t control the the unexpected events that become your life, it’s comforting to be in charge of something.

Thank goodness we’re always in charge of the most important thing.


“I am more and more convinced that our happiness or our unhappiness depends far more on the way we meet the events of life than on the nature of those events themselves.” (Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt)

NOT Some Kind of Soft Drink

“I can remember a reporter asking me for a quote, and I didn’t know what a quote was. I thought it was some kind of soft drink.” (Joe DiMaggio)

Something happened in my unexpected life I’ve been holding back on. I almost spilled the beans last month the day I blogged that something exciting was happening the next day. (In fact, Bachelor #5′s mom read that post and called him to ask if he was getting married the next day! Sorry, no. It actually had nothing to do with that.)

But I guess today is the day to share.

Last month, a reporter from NBC’s Channel 9 in Denver, CO, Cheryl Preheim, contacted me via email. She had found my blog, read it and wanted to talk to me. My first inclination was a resounding “No Way.” But, in true Andrea Merriman style, I read on anyway. And then I re-read the whole email. And then read it again.

Cheryl told me she was interested in my story from the perspective of my children and helping them through our challenge. She told me about her family, her children and her philosophy of life and motherhood. (Mothers know the way to other mother’s hearts, don’t they?) She said all the right things; and for some reason, I believed her. I was wary but warming to the idea of talking to her.

I turned to my trusty co-workers for advice. They are sharp, smart good men who haven’t led me astray in the 15 months I’ve known them. The comment I remember most came from our Emmy-winning film guy who said, “You’ve worked with media, you know reporters are never your friend.” So I googled Cheryl Preheim to find out what I could. I thought about it. And then I responded to her email.

We talked on the phone, emailed, got to know one another and…I liked her. I trusted her. (Can you believe after all of the lies and deception by someone so close to me I still trust people? But I do.) I had a good feeling about her and what she wanted to do. So we made a plan to meet.

She and a very nice cameraman named Ken flew to Utah and spent a day with my children and me. They were kind, generous and respectful of our family. They were easy to talk to. They became our friends. We were nothing showy or impressive, but they sat around our kitchen table and ate dinner with us anyway–and filmed my 5-year-old eating hot dogs and chips. I begged Ken not to show the unhealthy meal I was serving my young son, so he graciously zoomed in on the carrots my son WASN’T eating! We opened our home, our lives and our hearts to Cheryl and Ken and in the end, were so sorry to see them go.

After they left, I gathered my children together and asked them what they thought and how they felt. They said, “It was fun. They were nice.” It was a positive experience for them.

I was struck by it for different reasons.

The interview brought everything full circle for me. I’ve thought about my experiences, I’ve written about them, but I’ve never verbalized any of it on record. It was also eye opening to see how far we all have come. I observed my children objectively, and I realized they seem completely normal. Healed. The smiles and the laughter are real. (As are the bad manners, unfortunately!) I feel like it was the final chapter to this portion of the unexpected life that was thrust upon us last year.

Afterward, all I could think was, “It was unexpectedly fun and positive, a good experience for me and my children. And I REALLY like Cheryl Preheim. She is a good woman. A genuine person. A caring human being out to make a positive contribution to the world. A friend.” (Not to mention the fact she’s a talented reporter and a great writer.) Regardless of the outcome of putting myself out there, I stand by that.

And now I’m looking forward to seeing what she has done with my story.

Tonight. On NBC’s Channel 9. In Denver, CO.

I just wish I’d had time to have my hair done. Lose 20 pounds. Or maybe get a little Botox.

“I wish my name was Brian because maybe sometimes people would misspell my name and call me Brain. That’s like a free compliment and you don’t even gotta be smart to notice it.” (Mitch Hedberg)