From the novel’s very first page, Karen M. McManus establishes that the world of Bayview High is ruled by a volatile network of gossip, secrets, and lies. The novel’s title is deceiving—it’s not just one of the protagonists, but all four, who are lying to each other and often to themselves. Over the course of the novel, McManus puts her characters on separate but connected paths: away from lives lived in fear of their secrets being exposed, and towards lives lived in the light of the truth. Through her exploration of the economy of gossip and subterfuge that rules Bayview—and how her four protagonists manage to subvert and overcome it—McManus ultimately argues that communities ruled by truth, openness, and transparency are infinitely stronger than those united by cruelty, fear, and deceit.
Simon Kelleher, a Bayview High student who runs a popular gossip blog called About That, describes the blog—a source of fascination but also of fear and dread for the student body—as a “public service.” Simon, who knows that the people at his school will always “lie and cheat,” has seized upon the emotionally and socially fraught world of high school. Through his blog, he has helped to foster an environment—and an economy—in which gossip is both manna and poison; everyone reads the app voraciously and believes it unequivocally, but everyone is terrified of winding up in one of its posts. Simon is both hated and revered at Bayview; Cooper Clay admits in the novel’s early pages that Simon has the power to turn the tides of the social stratosphere at Bayview based on what he writes on his app, and has destroyed friendships and relationships throughout the student body because of gossip he’s spread and secrets he’s revealed. Cooper himself is “freaked” at the thought of what Simon could do to him using the app. Simon—a powerful, fearsome figure in the novel’s first few pages—is quickly dispatched when he dies early on due to a supposed allergic reaction. The suspicious circumstances surrounding Simon’s death quickly lead to a murder investigation in which Cooper, Addy, Bronwyn, and Nate—the four students who were in detention with him at the time of his death—are prime suspects. The students’ guilt is presupposed even more when it is revealed that Simon had queued up an About That post featuring explosive secrets about each of them. Bayview High is a place where gossip is powerful enough, even in the eyes of outside investigators, to derail someone’s life—to the point that they’d consider murder a welcome alternative to having their secrets revealed and leveled against them. In establishing the extremely high stakes of life at Bayview, McManus elevates the atmosphere of uncertainty within the novel and suggests that cruel gossip and the revelation of peoples’ darkest secrets is actually so traumatic that it drives people to commit heinous acts. As the novel progresses, the ways in which this suggestion is true will come to light—though none of her characters are murderers, they have all organized their lives around ferociously guarding their secrets and attempting to inure themselves against the gossip that hounds their classmates.
Once everyone’s worst fear has been realized—their secrets have been dragged out into the open—the secrets themselves are revealed to be far less destructive than the atmosphere of oppression and intimidation that made the secrets seem like such valuable currency in the first place. Bronwyn owns up to and apologizes for her cheating scandal, and as a result receives a missive on Twitter from her dream school, Yale, stating that they’re looking forward to receiving her application; Cooper, who is outed, struggles for a while with his father’s confusion and disappointment at the revelation of his son’s homosexuality but eventually receives more offers than ever from top college baseball teams around the country (and is able to openly date his partner, Kris); Addy fears she has been turned into a pariah because of the revelation that she cheated on her long-term boyfriend, Jake, but the resulting breakup actually removes her from a dangerous and controlling situation; Nate, who has in fact been violating his parole by selling drugs, is at last given the motivation to stop leading such a shady life when the whole fracas throws him and Bronwyn together, and he longs to improve himself in order to be with her. Though Simon posthumously retains his hold on Bayview through About This, a blog secretly being run by Jake in order to stoke the flames of the investigation, the divisions that seeped into the student body under Simon’s “reign” slowly begin to dissolve as the Bayview Four look past their own failures (and each other’s) and work together to pursue the larger truth—the truth of what happened to Simon, and of how he came to rule their school in the first place.
In the end, McManus’s characters have had all of their deepest and darkest secrets dragged out into the light—even if many of the revelations happened against their will. Though the exposition of their most painful secrets has been a taxing ordeal, McManus shows that her characters are stronger in the end now that their secrets are out in the open, and no one can use those secrets to manipulate them or to try and strike fear or shame into their hearts. The friendships and connections the four of them have formed have forever changed not just their own lives, but the lives of their larger school community—which has witnessed firsthand how destructive secrets, gossip, and lies truly are.
Gossip, Secrets, and Lies ThemeTracker
Gossip, Secrets, and Lies Quotes in One of Us is Lying
A sex tape. A pregnancy scare. Two cheating scandals. And that's just this week’s update. If all you knew of Bayview High was Simon Kelleher's gossip app, you'd wonder how anyone found time to go to class.
"Old news, Bronwyn," says a voice over my shoulder. "'Wait till you see tomorrow's post."
Damn. I hate getting caught reading About That, especially by its creator. I lower my phone and slam my locker shut. "Whose lives are you ruining next, Simon?"
Simon falls into step beside me as I move against the flow of students heading for the exit. "It’s a public service," he says with a dismissive wave. […] “Anyway, they bring it on themselves. If people didn’t lie and cheat, I’d be out of business.”
The phone almost slips out of my hand. Another text from Chad Posner came through while I was reading. People r fucked up.
I text back, Where’d you get this?
Posner writes some rando emailed a link, with the laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying emoji. He thinks it’s somebody’s idea of a sick joke. Which is what most people would think, if they hadn’t spent an hour with a police officer asking ten different ways how peanut oil got into Simon Kelleher's cup. Along with three other people who looked guilty as hell.
None of them have as much experience as I do keeping a straight face when shit's falling apart around them. At least, none of them are as good at it as me.
Four days after we're featured on the local news, the story goes national on Mikhail Powers Investigates. I knew it was coming, since Mikhail’s producers had tried to reach my family all week. We never responded, thanks to basic common sense and also Robin’s legal advice. Nate didn’t either, and Addy said she and Cooper both refused to talk as well. So the show will be airing in fifteen minutes without commentary from any of the people actually involved. Unless one of us is lying. Which is always a possibility.
Maeve and I are sprawled on my bed watching the minutes on my alarm clock tick by until my debut as a national disgrace. Or rather, I am, and she’s combing through the 4chan links she found through Simon’s admin site.
"Check this out," she says, angling her laptop toward me.
The long discussion thread covers a school shooting that happened last spring a few counties over. A sophomore boy concealed a handgun in his jacket and opened fire in the hallway after the first bell. Seven students and a teacher died before the boy turned the gun on himself, I have to read a few of the comments more than once before I realize the thread isn’t condemning the boy, but celebrating him. It’s a bunch of sickos cheering on what he did.
"Maeve." I burrow my head in my arms, not wanting to read any more. "What the hell is this?"
"Some forum Simon was all over a few months back."
I raise my head to stare at her. " Simon posted there? How do you know?"
"He used that AnarchiSK name from About That," Maeve replies.
Sexism is alive and well in true-crime coverage, because Bronwyn and I aren’t nearly as popular with the general public as Cooper and Nate. Especially Nate. All the tween girls posting about us on social media love him. They couldn’t care less that het a convicted drug dealer, because he’s got dreamy eyes.
Same goes for school. Bronwyn and I are pariahs—other than her friends, her sister, and Janae, hardly anyone talks to us. They just whisper behind our backs. But Cooper's as golden as ever. And Nate—well, it’s not like Nate was ever popular, exactly. He’s never seemed to care what people think, though, and he still doesn’t.
Another long silence descends while I try to gather my thoughts. I should be angrier, probably. I should demand proof of his trustworthiness, even though I have no idea what that would look like. I should ask lots of pointed questions designed to ferret out whatever other lies he’s told me.
But the thing is, I do believe him. I won’t pretend I know Nate inside and out after a few weeks, but I know what it's like to tell yourself a lie so often that it becomes the truth. I did it, and I haven’t had to muddle through life almost completely on my own.
And I’ve never thought he had it in him to kill Simon.
It’s a mundane, innocuous conversation compared to yesterday’s lunch, when we caught up on my police visit, Nate's mother, and the fact that Addy got called to the station separately to answer questions about the missing EpiPens again. Yesterday we were murder suspects with complicated personal lives, but today we're just being girls.
“I'm getting what I deserve, right? That’s what everybody thinks. I guess it's what Simon would’ve wanted. Everything out in the open for people to judge. No secrets."
"Simon . . ." Janae’s got that strangled sound to her voice again. "He’s not . . . He wasn’t like they said. I mean, yes, he went overboard with About That, and he wrote some awful things. But the past couple years have been rough. He tried so hard to be part of things and he never could. I don’t think . . ." She stumbles over her words. "When Simon was himself, he wouldn’t have wanted this for you."
I sit with Mary in the interrogation room after Detective Chang leaves, thankful there’s no two-way mirror as I bury my head in my hands. Life as I knew it is over, and pretty soon nobody will look at me the same way. I was going to tell eventually, but in a few years, maybe? When I was a star pitcher and untouchable. Not now. Not like this.
"Cooper." Mary puts a hand on my shoulder. "Your father will be wondering why we're still in here. You need to talk to him."
"I can't," I say automatically. Cain't.
"Your father loves you," she says quietly.
I almost laugh… He loves when I strike out the side and get attention from flashy scouts, and when my name scrolls across the bottom of ESPN. But me?
He doesn’t even know me.
[Nate] crosses to our table and dumps his backpack next to Bronwyn. She stands up, winds her arms around his neck, and kisses him like they're alone while the entire cafeteria erupts into gasps and catcalls. I stare as much as everyone else. I mean, I kind of guessed, but this is pretty public. I'm not sure if Bronwyn’s trying to distract everyone from Cooper or if she couldn’t help herself. Maybe both.
Either way, Cooper's effectively been forgotten. He's motionless at the entrance until I grab his arm. "Come sit. The whole murder club at one table. They can stare at all of us together."
We're not getting anywhere with this conversation. But I'm struck by a couple of things as I listen to them talk. One: I like all of them more than I thought I would. Bronwyn’s obviously been the biggest surprise, and like doesn't cover it. But Addy's turned into kind of a badass, and Cooper's not as one- dimensional as I thought.
And two: I don’t think any of them did it.
Maeve's hand finds mine as Mikhail drops his last bombshell—a screen capture of the 4chan discussion threads, with Simon’s worst posts about the Orange County school shooting highlighted:
Look, I support the notion of violently disrupting schools in theory, but this kid showed a depressing lack of imagination. I mean, it was fine, I guess. It got the job done. But it was so prosaic, Haven't we seen this a hundred times now? Kid shoots up school, shoots up sell film at eleven. Raise the stakes, for God's sake. Do something original.
A grenade, maybe. Samurai swords? Surprise me when you take out a bunch of asshole lemmings. That's all I'm asking.
I'm not sure you could call it journalism, but Mikhail Powers Investigates definitely has an impact over the next few days. Somebody starts a Change.org petition to drop the investigation that collects almost twenty thousand signatures. The MLB and local colleges get heat about whether they discriminate against gay players. The tone of the media coverage shifts, with more questions being raised about the police’s handling of the case than about us. And when I return to school on Monday, people actually talk to me again. […] Maybe my life won’t ever be fully normal again, but by the end of the week I start to hope it'll be less criminal.
"Let's go back to what we know," Bronwyn says. Her voice is almost clinical, but her face is flushed brick red. “Simon was one of those people who thought he should be at the center of everything, but wasn’t. And he was obsessed with the idea of making some kind of huge, violent splash at school. He fantasized about it all the time on those 4chan threads. What if this was his version of a school shooting? Kill himself and take a bunch of students down with him, but in an unexpected way. Like framing them for murder." She turns to her sister. "What did Simon say on 4chan, Maeve? Do something original. Surprise me when you take out a bunch of lemming assholes."
I look up from the papers. "Why?" I ask, bile rising in my throat. "How did Simon get to this point?"
"He'd been depressed for a while," Janae says, kneading the fabric of her black skirt between her hands. The stacks of studded bracelets she wears on both arms rattle with the movement. "Simon always felt like he should get a lot more respect and attention than he did, you know? But he got really bitter about it this year. He started spending all his time online with a bunch of creepers, fantasizing about getting revenge on everyone who made him miserable. It got to the point where I don’t think he even knew what was real anymore. Whenever something bad happened, he blew it way out of proportion."
I'm barely dragging myself forward, and the noises behind me get louder until a hand catches my arm and yanks me back. I manage to scream once more before Jake clamps his other hand over my mouth.
"You little bitch," he says hoarsely. "You brought this on yourself, you know that?"
"Maeve, I don't care about Twitter," I say wearily. I haven’t been on there since this whole mess started. Even with my profile set to private, I couldn’t deal with the onslaught of opinions.
"I know. But you should see this." She hands me her phone and points to a post on my timeline from Yale University: To err is human @BronwynRojas. We look forward to receiving your application.
I think a lot about Simon and about what the media called his "aggrieved entitlement”—the belief he was owed something he didn’t get, and everyone should pay because of it. It's almost impossible to understand, except by that corner of my brain that pushed me to cheat for validation I hadn't earned. I don’t ever want to be that person again.