Back in 2019, the Facebook app rested on the second page of my iPhone’s home screen, relegated there along with the other little-used programs. When my finger would find itself hovering over the blue “F” icon, it was merely out of habit. A reflexive impulse from the pre-Instagram decade, when mobile uploads and Facebook walls ruled my social existence.

But when I aimlessly logged on to Facebook on May 16 of that year, instead of scrolling through my feed’s typical posts of happy-birthday messages and geotagged images from friends of my parents, I was met with a status update that stopped me in my tracks. Alissa had died.

Though I’d never known Alissa personally, she’d gone to therapeutic boarding school with my childhood best friend, Elissa. I’d first learned of her—along with a third friend of theirs from school, who was uncannily named Alyssa—on Elissa’s Facebook page, when she’d Elissa passed away from encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) in 2011, at age 18. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, her profile was flooded with messages of people mourning her. It was Alyssa and Alissa’s urgent and memory-filled posts that stuck out most and haunted.

Then, in 2015, when I returned to the platform, I learned of Alyssa’s passing from a drug overdose. Four years later, that Facebook status update alerted me that Alissa had died (in this case, of kidney failure) as well. So when I set out to report out these three women’s life stories, I knew there was only one place to start.

It Happened Online

At first, I got a thrill out of my Facebook sleuthing. It reminded me of being in high school and stalking my various crushes: combing through their tagged pictures, checking out every girl they’d posed next to, seeing whom they’d been writing to. I started with Alyssa’s profile pictures. A photo-booth selfie where she’d selected the effect that made it look like she was underwater; a photo from a school dance to which she wore a bright-orange minidress. But the more I looked, the more I kept seeing the same black-haired, pale-blue-eyed teenage boy: Owen.

Most people I reached out to via Facebook’s Messenger app were eager to participate in my book. But Owen didn’t want to be found. All I could see of his Facebook presence was one blurry shot of him on what appeared to be a dirt bike. His privacy settings made it so I was neither able to message him nor see whom he was “friends” with. But as I spoke to more and more of Alyssa’s friends, the more integral to the story he seemed to become.

Owen was not only Alyssa’s high-school boyfriend but had introduced her to the drugs she’d later die from. Those I spoke with described him as a scary individual, one that they were frightened to talk about on the record. And this only made my obsession with reaching him even greater. I searched for anyone who shared his last name in a 10-mile radius of his hometown, hoping that one of these people would reveal more than the decade-plus old photo Alyssa had posted of him.

About a month into my reporting, I got a break in my research. A mutual friend of Alyssa and Owen’s let me know that Owen had gotten married a few years earlier to a woman named Madison. I was frenzied as I typed her name into the search bar, envisioning an outwardly ominous woman. I pictured her with long black hair, sleeves of tattoos. Instead, what I found was a Christian mother of two, whose profile pictures included selfies of her and Owen with their children. She also had solo shots of them with captions such as “Someone who really loves you sees what a mess you can be, how moody you can get, how hard you are to handle, but still wants you in their life.”

The more I looked, the more I kept seeing the same black-haired, pale-blue-eyed teenage boy.

The Owen of Madison’s page was every bit her counterpart, looking preppy and corporate-leaning in button-up shirts and khaki pants. His smile showed so much teeth that it felt nearly impossible to square this wholesome father with the drug-dealing, heroin-using twentysomething of Alyssa’s friends’ stories.

I quickly reached out to Madison, who politely let me know that Owen would not be interested in participating in the book. And while not being able to interview him was one of the greatest disappointments of my reporting process, the rejection also awakened me to the limitations of my Facebook reporting.

Particularly for the millennial generation—those, like me, who came of age on Facebook—the platform offers an unbelievable archive. Through Facebook I was able to uncover diary-esque entries from each of my subjects, an evolution of their teenage years in pictures, and a register of their friends. But in my excitement over all this access, I’d forgotten the cardinal rule of social media: photos reveal only so much.

Just because Owen appeared buttoned-up in the photos his wife posted doesn’t mean he wasn’t the same guy who’d taught Alyssa to shoot up. These images were just the very surface of the story.

So I logged off, grateful for what I’d discovered but eager to uncover the truth of these women’s lives, which were far more vibrant, devastating, and beguiling than anything their Facebook profiles could ever show.

Samantha Leach is an editor at Bustle. Her book, The Elissas: Three Girls, One Fate, and the Deadly Secrets of Suburbia, is out now from Legacy Lit