April 14, 2020


When Alum Karli Butler Shared Her Message of Forgiveness from DePaul’s TEDx Stage

Alumna Karli Butler inspired the TEDxDePaulUniversity audience in 2018 with her story of the acid attack she survived in 2006, her recovery and the path she took towards forgiving her assailant. In this episode, DePaul Download checks back in with Karli to hear what she’s been up to, how the TEDx experience impacted her life and what it was like to share such a personal story with hundreds of people. Karli is a Double Demon, holding both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the College of Communication.



LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I’m your host, Linda Blakley, vice president of University Marketing and Communications.  

As part of the university’s COVID-19 prevention efforts, many cherished DePaul events have been canceled or postponed this spring. That includes TEDxDePaulUniversity, which was scheduled to take place on April the 24th. 

So let’s take some time to revisit one of our past TEDx speakers. 
On this episode, we’re checking in with Karli Butler, a DePaul alumna who presented a powerful Talk at 2018’s TEDxDePaulUniversity called “Reimagining Forgiveness.” 

She spoke about the acid attack she survived in 2006 and her forgiveness for the assailant. In an interview we recorded in February, I spoke with Karli about her experience as a TEDx speaker and what she’s been up to since her 2018 Talk. Here’s a clip. 

KARLI BUTLER: I woke up on May 25, 2006, a joyful, hardworking graduate student with the world at my fingertips. I would wake up the next day, an acid burn survivor laying in a hospital bed, connected to tubes and IVs, not knowing what was next for me.

I’d suffered third degree full thickness burns to 30 percent of my body. My life had become a TV movie. I would spend six and a half weeks in the hospital falling in and out of depression, having nightmares every night of someone trying to kill me. Sometimes with a gun. Once, I was pushed off a cliff. And once, I was put in a furnace.

The physical scars were painful but the emotional scars terrorized me.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Karli’s talk about the acid attack she survived in 2006 and her forgiving the assailant has been viewed more than three thousand times on YouTube. I am so grateful that she told her story through TEDxDePaulUniversity and Karli, I am also grateful you’re joining me here today.

KARLI BUTLER: And I’m excited to be here. Thank you.

LINDA BLAKLEY: For listeners who might be unfamiliar with your talk, tell us a little more about it. How did you move through your anger and find forgiveness?

KARLI BUTLER: Well, being the survivor of violence was a really transformative experience for me and I thought that I wanted to share with people, you know, how I was able to move through that.

That year, the theme was “Reimagine Forgiveness,” so I really wanted to share with others and help them to reimagine forgiveness, not as a reciprocal process or expectation of an apology, but really forgiving for self and starting with self.

LINDA BLAKLEY: How did that forgiveness change you?

KARLI BUTLER: You know, it started with a thought and at the time, I was in a really dark place. I was really upset about what happened to me. Everyone else had gotten to move on with their lives and the anger that I was harboring towards the people who harmed me was really eating me up. It wasn’t contributing in any way to my healing or my growth. And every day that I woke up, I was miserable.

That anger was bringing me down and I thought, I can’t live like this. I do not want to live like this. And so, it was that first thought of forgiveness and then when I made the decision to forgive and let go, things started to transform for me.

Good, positive things started to happen. You know, things started to open up for me and that is when I knew I had made the right decision.

LINDA BLAKLEY: You’re an advocate for other survivors of violence. What do you tell people about the notion of forgiveness?

KARLI BUTLER: I tell them that forgiveness is personal and you don’t have to do it anyone else’s way, right? It is very personal. And you can change your mind. That’s okay. And then also, just because you forgive a person, it doesn’t mean that you are excusing what happened, right?

And it also doesn’t mean that they have to be a part of your life. So, you can forgive yourself and move forward without any expectation of, you know, having a friendship or moving forward with them being a part of your life.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Karli, you’re what we call a double demon. You have two degrees from DePaul, a bachelor’s degree that was earned in 2004 and a master’s degree that you completed in 2010. How was your education part of your recovery?

KARLI BUTLER: I was attacked shortly after graduation. So, I graduated my undergrad in 2004 and I had an amazing experience. I was an Egan Hope scholar here and I was attacked in 2006. So, there was a very short window. 

I was actually in my first graduate school class when the first attack happened. And so, when I was in the hospital, my first thought was I have a paper that I have to turn in. I was devastated that I had to stop going to school because of what happened to me and it was my first priority after healing to get back.

And so, I had a totally different vision for my life but getting back to school really helped me to get back on the path that I was on and to reclaim my happiness.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Did your education in communications have a role in you becoming an advocate?

KARLI BUTLER: At the time, I didn’t know that it would help me. But now, you know, now it has been really helpful. I didn’t realize the role and so I am exactly where I am supposed to be, if that makes sense.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Yes. Your topic is so incredibly personal. What made you want to participate in TEDxDePaulUniversity?

KARLI BUTLER: Well, I love DePaul University and I thought it a really good opportunity to share with an audience that was familiar to me and I really loved the theme. And so, it just seemed like the perfect space for me to share an intimate story that was deeply traumatizing to me.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I want a glimpse into what it is like to be a TEDx speaker. How did you prepare for the big day?

KARLI BUTLER: Oh, oh the preparation. I knew that it would be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Again, it is one of those things you don’t really know you can do until you do it. So, looking back at the process, I – it was a really anxiety ridden time for me, honestly, because I wanted to do a good job. But I had these notecards, right? I had written out the different sections of my talk on notecards and my son will tell you; I was carrying them to soccer practice, Chuck E. Cheese, everywhere. Just practicing over and over again. Listening to myself and writing things down until I got to a point where I felt comfortable sharing.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Walk us through what it’s like to stand in that red circle with hundreds of eyes on you. Were you nervous?

KARLI BUTLER: I was very nervous. And you know, watching the other speakers before me was really energizing because I was like, oh, they’ve done a great job; I know I can do this. But you know, the producers reminded me, they said you may get emotional. I’m like, no, no. I’ve done this a thousand times. You know, I’ve told this story so many times. No worries.

And I did have a moment where I literally froze, right? I had an out of body experience where I’m like, oh my goodness. I’m talking about my own life here, not somebody else. And I really appreciate that moment. I’m not ashamed about it at all because it really helped me to reflect and just really stand in the moment and think I’m here. I’m sharing this. This is real. It was a cathartic experience for me for sure.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Did gaining this valuable exposure change your life in any way, whether personally or professionally?

KARLI BUTLER: Personally, it solidified the fact that I can speak publicly. It is something that I can do. I have been doing it for a long time but it definitely legitimizes you as a speaker. So, that was a personal goal. 

But professionally, I get a lot of emails and phone calls from people asking for my expertise around trauma, forgiveness, you know, going through the justice system, and I really appreciate people inquiring about me and my perspective.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What part about the experience did you find the most satisfying and what part did you find the most challenging?

KARLI BUTLER: I would say the most satisfying was the audience and the feedback and having my family there, just having this really supportive crowd of people who were there to really enjoy the experience with me.

The most challenging part, I would say, was leading up to the actual event, so the practicing, the waking up in the middle of the night thinking I would forget all of the words. So, that anxious period was really hard.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What kind of feedback have you received on your talk?

KARLI BUTLER: Really positive feedback thank goodness. So, despite my little pause, I think people felt really moved by that moment and for a moment, I was like, oh no. I kind of messed up. But I was being reflective. So, I appreciate everyone’s feedback that I did help them reimagine forgiveness.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I was in the audience that day and I can confirm that that pause moved people. I can tell you, it moved me.

KARLI BUTLER: Thank you. I just – I was – I was thinking – I was thinking about Nicole and I was thinking about what happened to me and in the distance I heard my dad. My dad said, “It’s okay Kar.” And we went out to dinner after that and my son, who had been part of this process the whole time, he goes, Mommy, I was going to run up and help you.

I just thought, oh, thank you.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Tell us about your life now. What are you doing?

KARLI BUTLER: My life now. So, for a little while after the talk, I was Director of Social Services at Curt’s Café which I shared in my talk and it was amazingly fulfilling work. And now I am Program Officer at a local community foundation and so I am really enjoying you know, spreading my wings and challenging myself in a new field.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Considering where you are today, what was the most significant contributing experience or factor during your time as a student at DePaul?

KARLI BUTLER: Well, I’d say in undergrad, it was really my peers and the community. I felt really supported and I really enjoyed my experience of just being in the Chicagoland area. And graduate school, I really appreciated having professors who helped me to become a critical thinker.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What advice would you give current students or members of DePaul’s community who want to position themselves as thought leaders and may want to one day be on that stage?

KARLI BUTLER: I’d say really think carefully about what you want to share. Be passionate about it and be open to – you have to decide how vulnerable you want to be for that experience. So, once you’ve nailed that down, you know, submit your application and give it a go and just practice, practice, practice.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Karli, thank you for sharing your message of empowerment with DePaul Download. It was great to see you again.

KARLI BUTLER: Thank you for having me.

LINDA BLAKLEY: You can find a link to Karli’s talk on the DePaul Download website.

I am Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to this episode of DePaul Download, presented by DePaul’s Division of University Marketing and Communications.