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The Speech Continued: ‘A’ is for Integrity

A: ALWAYS Integrity

I believe integrity will see you through anything. Be who you are, be true to yourself, be honest with yourself and others in whatever situation you may be.

Ironically, if I’d had to describe myself or the person my parents had taught me to be prior to 2009, it would have been that I was a person of integrity. Yet there I was, my entire life, family, past, future, reputation, destroyed by a man the complete opposite of that. And I’d never known that or seen that.

I never, in my life, thought integrity would be a challenge for me. However, I was shocked at some of the thoughts that came to me, to abandon my integrity, out of sheer desperation for my circumstances.

The day the U.S. Marshalls came to inventory my possessions for seizure was one of those days. While waiting for them to arrive, I actually had the thought to hide some of my jewelry. (Not that I’m a big fan of jewels. I saw my jewels simply as an asset that could be sold to help me feed my children in my desperate circumstances.) I was shocked at the thought! I was an honest person, I couldn’t believe that thought had even crossed my mind.

I dismissed it, briefly waged a silent battle within my own mind, and quickly came to the determination that I was not going to let someone else’s lack of integrity cause me to lose mine! I’d rather starve to death! (Which at the time I didn’t consider a remote possibility–I thought that’s where I was headed.) I’d also love to say that’s the only time I had that thought to be dishonest, but interestingly, I was presented with another opportunity to choose integrity regarding my jewelry within a few weeks of that initial challenge, and I had to decide, AGAIN, to choose to have integrity! Once again, I decided my integrity was worth more than anything to me.

I decided, as did the mother of Cornelius in ancient Greece, that my children were to be my jewels! My ONLY jewels. And I’m ok with that.


On the Heels of Healing…Vindication

“Truth is generally the best vindication against slander.” (Abraham Lincoln)

When the infamous events of 2009 unfolded, there were many aspects of them that were indescribably difficult for me, personally. Some I have written about, some I have never addressed, but all of them I let go. Because I don’t see how you can triumph over adversity, or move beyond a challenge, or most importantly HEAL, if you’re still hanging on to the hurt. So, regardless of the difficulty, I made a conscious decision to let it all go.

Here’s one example.

One of the hardest consequences of my former husband’s crimes were the attacks on my personal integrity. Out of the entire nightmare that was one part of it that gave me great grief. (I know, to each his own! But having been taught to live a life of integrity and to value honesty above most everything else, it was a tough emotional blow to know a heavy shadow of suspicion lay over me in the eyes of many due to the actions of the man I was married to.) What I wanted more than anything (other than to wake up and discover my life wasn’t real, that it was only a nightmare) was vindication. I wanted someone in a position of authority to publicly defend me, to acknowledge my innocence, and to make an irrefutable statement to the world: “Andrea Merriman is innocent. She didn’t know about the crimes and she wasn’t involved in any crimes.” But that doesn’t happen in cases like the one I was thrust into against my will. I learned that firsthand in 2009.

So I let it go. T0 heal, required that I let all of that go.

I made the conscious decision to know I knew the truth: that I was, am and always have been an honest person. I decided to not care what other people might suspect or erroneously believe about me. I chose to carry on and to continue to live my life the only way I knew how—with integrity. I abandoned all hope of vindication, or of anyone defending me or my integrity, publicly. I healed.

Imagine my surprise, then, on June 20, 2012 when the episode of “American Greed” featuring the crimes of Shawn Merriman played on televisions across the nation and a federal agent said something like, “There is absolutely no evidence that Andrea Merriman knew what was going on or that she was involved in it.”

I NEVER expected that!

In fact, when my friend called to tell me about it (as I can’t afford television, satellite or cable I couldn’t watch it, real time, myself) I couldn’t believe it. She said, “It’s nothing we didn’t know, but did you ever imagine you’d hear it on national television?” Nope. I can’t say it enough—I honestly never expected that. But I also couldn’t be more grateful to the good man, and federal agent, who publicly stated the truth.

The unexpected life just keeps getting more unexpected!

And sometimes, as a part of the glorious highs and extremely devastating lows that are a part of each person’s journey, you eventually get exactly what you’ve wished for. It may not come to you when you want it, it may not come when you think you “have” to have it (after all, I had to move forward and heal without mine.) But now I see that it was better that way.

It was better for me to heal without it. I think I became stronger because of it.

“At the time, when you’re being dissected and judged it’s pretty brutal, but in hindsight it’s great and – it sounds cliched – you do come out the other side better and stronger.” (Kate Bosworth)

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)

I Want A Man

“I want a man who’s kind and understanding.  Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?” (Zsa Zsa Gabor)

As a teenager, I compiled a list of everything I wanted in a man. I found that list after my divorce…and laughed. In many ways, it was a bit, as #5 would call it, “Twilight-esque.” (In other words, unrealistic and total, imaginary romanticism that exists in the fictional world of vampires and werewolves, Edward and Bella. Ah, the emotional depth of teenage girls!) Here are a few important qualities from the early 1980s: tall, brown hair, tan skin, hard working, handsome, good at sports, funny, nice, good dancer, smart, good singer, polite, straight white teeth, opens doors for me, rich, writes romantic things to me, fun, spiritual, honest, hairless chest, sends me flowers, loves me more than anything, romantic, wears good cologne, stylish…let’s see, did I leave ANYTHING out?

When I grew up, I was self-aware enough to know looks and athletics alone might be fine for some women, but I knew it wouldn’t be enough to keep me “in love” for the rest of my life and into eternity so I decided long term (what I would most appreciate as a married woman in my 40s) was a smart man who treated me well. I married the first guy I felt was smarter than me. And boy, did he turn out to be smart! A lot smarter, more clever and cunning, than I’d ever imagined, in fact! I was happy and in love, until I found out our 20-year marriage had been built on 14+years of deception and lies. (Ironic, isn’t it, that I based my choice on what I’d want 40-something, and that’s when it all ended and I was alone and single anyway?)

It was the personal loss that caused me the most pain. My childrens’ loss of their dad, their childhood, their innocence, their life, their family, everything as they knew it, was the worst; followed closely by my loss. I had lost the man I had loved, relied on and built a life with; the man who should have been loyal to me and my biggest protector. I just knew I was destined to be alone the rest of my life. I felt those losses powerfully.

I remember standing in my Colorado kitchen one day, my heart literally breaking over those losses. And mother that I am, this is why I cried that time: “Even if someday when I’m 80 years old and some man takes pity on me and marries me because his wife died and he needs a housekeeper, I’ll never have a whole and complete family. Even if a one-in-a-billion miracle happens and a man ever loves me again, no one will love my children. My kids will never again run into my room, jump on my bed, and wrestle with a dad.” (It may sound crazy, but out of everything I had lost that was a big one for me.)

I began dating less than 3 months after my divorce, and I realize now, I entered into it without a lot of thought. I was reeling from the shock of what had transpired in a matter of months; I didn’t know what I was doing because everything related to singles and socializing had changed so drastically since the 1980s (it was sort of like entering the playing field without a game plan.) I was lonely. However, after meeting my first single man, it didn’t take long to list the things I couldn’t live without: spiritual depth, integrity, emotional stability, family-oriented focus, employed, a good father to my kids, a man who loves ME. Oh, and good credit. (The crimes of my husband and his incarceration destroyed MY credit. I didn’t need a man with money because I’ve never needed money to be happy, but I had to have a man who could at least qualify for a rental lease, a home loan, or a car loan because I can’t–and I can’t ask friends and family to do that for me for the rest of my life! The Catch-22 is that what man with good credit would want me and my financial disaster? But that’s a blog for another day…)

Cut to the other night.

Mr. Awesome (aka. #5/Agent M) and I were sitting on my bed talking. The door was locked. (With a small house and many children around, it’s what we’ve occasionally had to resort to when we need to discuss something important.) In the middle of it, my youngest knocked on the door. I didn’t open it, but told him I’d be with him as soon as my discussion was over. He went away for awhile and then knocked again. I repeated my instruction, he went away for awhile and then knocked on the door again. The third time he knocked, #5 looked at me and asked, “Do you think we should open the door and let him in now? I like it when he runs in and jumps on the bed. I love his hugs. And it’s fun to wrestle him.”

He opened the door and their wrestling match began. Pillows were flying, tickles were traded (along with a few karate chops) and all I could do was remember that moment I stood in my Colorado kitchen, sure that my youngest would never know what it was to have a dad, much less wrestle with a dad.

Can you believe it? Dreams really can come true.

Every single one of them.

“I tell people I’m too stupid to know what’s impossible. I have ridiculously large dreams, and half the time they come true.” (Debi Thomas)

Life Is Such a Roller Coaster Ride

One of the people left in the world who has known me the longest emailed me earlier this year with encouraging words and fabulous advice that I’ve tried to follow:  Life is such a roller coaster ride…we just have to hang on, scream real loud, and enjoy the ride!

In my experience, truer words have never been spoken.

And no ride made me hang on (or want to scream) more than the ride I was on April 2009 last year. My spouse had revealed His crimes, He was headed to prison, and I found out I would be left alone to provide for and raise our four children. My roller coaster car was rolling away from the gate and the ride of my life had begun!

Things seemed very black a lot of the time, yet the crazy optimist in me refused to give in to it and I tried to find the light in every thing that I could.  It was SUCH a roller coaster I can’t describe it. I was worried about providing for my family, finding a place for us to live, beginning a new life in every sense of the word, and I did it all amid negative publicity about my spouse for His ponzi scheme crime and the public collapse of my life and marriage. Yes, there were ups and downs!

One huge roller coaster was the financial aspect of things.  It was pretty bleak.

The day my spouse told me of His crimes, He had already turned himself in to the authorities and all of our assets had been frozen. I had no money.  I had four children to feed and shelter and I didn’t know how I was going to do it. That was a low.

The government authorities catalogued items for seizure and told me they were not interested in my jewelry.  I rejoiced!  That was a high!  I admit, I love things that sparkle; I always have.  And although I’d never asked for jewelry, my spouse had given me a few pieces as gifts over the years. I loaned them to friends as often as I wore them, and although I didn’t plan on ever wearing my jewelry again, I realized I could sell my jewelry for cash and use it to help support my children and rebuild my life.

Then my roller coaster car took one of those sharp, unexpected turns–the kind you hit just when you think your ride is about over–and started racing downhill again!  The government investigators returned to my home.  They apologized.  They said they knew they told me they weren’t interested in my jewelry and had told me I could remove it from my home but…did I have any diamond necklaces or tennis bracelets?

That day was a low.  That day I discovered my friends, who had worn my jewelry and knew everything I had, were providing lists of my possessions to the government, hounding them to take it,  and the government had to comply.  That day I wrote, “Sometimes I don’t know how I’ll go on.  I work so hard to think, ‘I’ll start over and make a new life,’ I make a plan to do that, and then every little thing the government tries to leave for me, my ‘friends’ make sure it gets taken away.  It’s not for me that I want anything.  It’s for my kids. I just need to provide for them. I want, I want, I want! There is so much I want. So many injustices I’m being dealt and there will never be any restitution to me for any of it.  I am the one victim who is not on the victim’s restitution list.  I am THE ONE who will just have to let go of it, forgive, and go on.”

The government asked me to give them a list of the jewelry I owned, which I did.  And they called, amazed, that I had admitted to MORE than they knew I had!  That was a high for me.  I continued to value my character and integrity above all.

Then I met with bankruptcy attorneys.  They were appalled at how, in their words, “completely bereft” a position I had been placed.  I don’t think they’d seen anyone left in my position, to start over with four kids to the extent that I had been.  That was a low.

That day I returned home feeling very alone, and when I arrived home my daughter said, “Mom.  It’s April Fool’s Day!” The irony completely got me, and must have shown in my face, because my daughter said, “What?  What’s wrong, Mom?”  I just smiled and said, “Nothing.  I’m fine.  I’m great.”  It was becoming my answer to everything.

There were many other financial highs and lows that followed and I eventually learned not to get too worked up in either direction, to wait and see how everything played out to avoid getting devastated time and again.  Sometimes roller coasters can be a bit much, too many highs and lows.

So I rode the roller coaster.  And I hung on.  I don’t recall that I ever screamed but I cried. And although I wasn’t overly successful at enjoying the ride, I had two goals for myself as I rode:  To not hate anyone.  And to be cheerful, happy, and optimistic.  I didn’t want to be anyone’s “downer.”

Life Cycles…And Jewels

You know, it’s funny how life cycles.

I’ve noticed how just when I think I have conquered a challenge in my life, or overcome a shortcoming, sooner or later life comes at me again, in a new way, and I get to refine myself even more in that particular area.

For example, patience.  I struggled with patience as a child, yet by the time I became a young adult, I felt I had mastered my temper and impatience.  I was patient.  All was good for a few years, and then I became a mother.  I developed patience in entirely new ways as a result of being blessed with children.  I was really patient.  All was good, and then I became the daughter of a mother with brain damage and personality changes as a result of strokes and health challenges and I developed new aspects of patience.  The list of life experiences that have helped me refine myself in the area of patience is long and continues…even with the events of 2009.

Honesty, however, is one area of my life I can honestly say (pun intended!) I have been close to perfect in.  My parents drilled the importance of honesty and integrity, in all things.  We were raised to be CHRISTENSENS, and as such, we had to be an example to others, we needed to be honest and live good lives, and bring honor to the good name our ancestors had passed on to us.

So 2009 was a shock to me.  I couldn’t believe the dishonesty one man was capable of.  I couldn’t believe I knew a person so dishonest–much less, was married to him! But what shocked me even more were fleeting thoughts I had.

I had been left in poverty, homeless, unemployed, and had four children depending on me for survival.  I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit to thinking, fleetingly, “I could hide something of value from the government.  I could try to hide something that I could sell to support my children.”

And then just as fast, I thought, “I have lived a life of integrity my entire life!  WHY would I throw that away now?  And for worthless THINGS that will stay here when I die?  I’m not going to sell MY soul for THINGS! I am honest, always have been, and I will remain honest even in this.”  I also didn’t want ANY of Him to have rubbed off on me.

I remembered a story from the life of  a good man named David B. Haight.  He played college football at the University of Utah and told of how he could have moved the football half an inch to win a championship game and no one but him would have known what he had done.  Instead, he chose to be honest and his team lost the game.

Sure there was a moment when I shocked myself with the thought to try to secure something for my children.  In fact, that was the moment that surprised me–I was an honest person, always had been, I didn’t expect to think even a thought about another alternative. I chose to remain honest.  I chose not to attempt to secure something for my children. I “didn’t move the football.”  (I even thought, “Maybe if I am 100% honest I will escape some hatred and persecution.”  That didn’t work out, to my knowledge, but I stand by my decision to remain honest!)

And really, the bank, the government, anyone could take my home or anything I owned, they could take my diamonds and other jewelry, but I would still have my jewels.  My children.  My children have always been my jewels.  And they are priceless to me.

So I did it.  Some would say I lost practically everything, and I did lose a lot materially, but I kept my honesty and integrity intact AND…I got to keep my jewels!

The price of integrity? Priceless.