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A Close Knit Family

Betsy Lee McCarthy and daughter Rebecca Skloot have found success as authors—and serenity as knitters.

Betsy Lee McCarthy's unexpected claim to fame came at age 61, in the form of her 2004 book, Knit Socks! 15 Cool Patterns for Toasty Feet. The sock-shaped how-to guide was such a success (more than 65,000 copies sold) that McCarthy is currently working on an update. "There really have been innovations in knitting since then," she says. The new release, due this fall, will be called Knit Socks! 17 Classic Patterns for Cozy Feet.

Last month, McCarthy's daughter, science writer Rebecca Skloot, 37, earned acclaim with her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is the disturbing, true story of how the cells of a poor African-American woman dying from cervical cancer were harvested without her knowledge and became the first "immortal" human cells to be grown and maintained in a laboratory setting. Henrietta Lacks' cells—known to scientists and researchers as the "HeLa cells"—were vital to the development of vaccines and such medical advances as in vitro fertilization and gene mapping. The book, which is topping best-seller lists, tells the story of Lacks (a mother of four who died of the cancer in 1951 at age 31), her survivors, and the medical and scientific industries that have made millions from her.

Rebecca Skloot appears to have inherited her drive and creative passion from both of her parents. Dad is McCarthy's second husband, Floyd Skloot, an award-winning poet and the author of In the Shadow of Memory, his 2003 memoir about a viral illness that left him brain damaged and severely disabled.

"My parents spent the majority of their lives working at day jobs topay the bills, but they each had a creative art they loved," explains Rebecca. "Both eventually chose to pursue their creativity." She relates that when she was in her 20s and wanted to quit her job at a university in order to write a book about Lacks and the HeLa cells, "My parents basically said, 'Don't do what I did,' which was let the need to have a steady job get in the way of what I really wanted to do."

In addition to a passion for her own creative goals, Rebecca looks to have inherited a seemingly effortless ability to knit.

Rebecca Skloot and Betsy Lee McCarthy

Photo by Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca Skloot and Betsy McCarthy

As McCarthy tells it, she was visiting her daughter in New York City a few years ago when, "The day before I was leaving, Becka said she wanted me to teach her to knit. I went through one lesson, and then she took off. It was as if she already knew how to knit, so I asked her, 'Are you sure I didn't teach you this before?'"

Rebecca Skloot confirms the evening's lesson with her mother was the first. (Mostly, she says, because of her own lack of interest when she was young, and later, her busy schedule.) "My mother was completely freaked out," Skloot laughs. "She couldn't believe how I

was able to just start knitting. But as we were knitting, I realized I had spent my entire childhood watching her knit. Her knitting was relaxing to me. I could zone out and stare at her hands. I think I learned to knit by watching her. I just didn't realize I could do it until I actually had the needles in my hands."

Today, Skloot knits as often as she can. "It's meditative," she says, noting that because her book took a decade to write, knitting became a refuge. "It was a way for me to stop thinking intensely and turn everything off." She favors scarves ("My boyfriend now has a wide array of scarves," she says) and, lately, baby blankets, which she makes as gifts.

Skoot doesn't do socks, but like her mom, she can knit while talking, walking, watching TV, or sitting in a dark movie theater. Neither woman needs to watch what her hands are doing, but since both are often on the move, they do need to knit travel-friendly items. (Surprisingly, knitting needles haven't caused a problem at airport security.) Skloot is knitting placemats during her national book and speaking tour. "They don't take up a lot of space in my suitcase," she says.

When talking about her daughter's innate abilities as a knitter, McCarthy recalls a similar experience when she and her then-13-year-old grandson were awaiting the birth of his brother, the younger of her two grandchildren. "I was knitting, and he asked if he could, too," recalls McCarthy, who had taught the boy to knit when he was small. "I'm thinking, this isn't a good time to be teaching him how to knit again, but he insisted. I handed him the socks I was knitting, and he remembered how to do it."

Perhaps Rebecca Skloot's next science book could explore the existence of a knitting gene?